Big Pharma Testing “Super Painkillers”
Four pharmaceutical companies are developing “super painkillers” – new versions of prescription narcotics, which are the very ones fueling the nation’s latest drug epidemic.
Zogenix of San Diego is testing a new drug called Zohydro that would be ten times more powerful than Vicodin, one of the most frequently abused drugs on the market today. Vicodin is a combination of the opiate hydrocodone and acetaminophen (brand name: Tylenol), and is the second most abused drug by teenagers after marijuana. Zogenix plans to make Zogenix, a pure form of hydrocodone available in 2013.
Purdue Pharma and Cephalon are currently developing hydrocodone super painkillers, and Purdue has a patent for an extended release version. Egalet should have a super painkiller by 2015. Opioid painkillers are a $10 billion annual market for American drug companies, which are already selling over 400 kinds of painkillers.
The National Institute of Drug Abuse, a federal agency, estimates that 1.1 million Americans are dependent on narcotics, defined as natural or synthetic drugs chemically related to opium and capable of producing pain relief and a state of drowsiness or stupor lasting several hours. These drugs include morphine, heroin, hydrocodone, oxycodone, and many others. Many of the people addicted to narcotics abuse prescription painkillers.
The use of prescription painkillers skyrocketed in the last decade after the Joint Commission on Accreditation of Healthcare Organizations loosened the guidelines for the treatment of pain. Since then, doctors have increasingly been writing prescriptions for painkillers, which means that so many drugs are available that many addicts can obtain their supplies without going to a street dealer. Instead, they go from one doctor or pain clinic to another in order to obtain their pills, or they simply steal them from friends’ and family medicine cabinets. One in 20 high school seniors has tried prescription painkillers, and visits to hospital emergency rooms because of these drugs are up 430% since 1999, according to figures from the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration. Deaths from drug overdoses exceeded automobile fatalities for the first time in 2010.
Professionals who work in the field of addiction have been quick to criticize pharmaceutical companies for developing super painkillers in the middle of a painkiller epidemic.
“The whole supply side is set up to perpetuate this massive unloading of opiate narcotics on the American public,” said Peter Jackson, co-founder of Advocates for the Reform of Prescription Opioids. “We shouldn’t be putting more bullets onto the street.”
Dr. Joel Saper, founder and director of the Michigan Head Pain and Neurological Institute in Ann Arbor, commented, “Drug deaths from [opiates] exceed both auto and gun deaths. So do I think we need another narcotic marketed and hyped? I don’t think we need another opioid. We need better education, more sanity, and we need to stop treating benign pain with more narcotics.”
Other experts, particularly those in the pharmaceutical industry, believe the problem lies not in the painkillers themselves but rather in their regulation. Dr. Lloyd Saberski, medical director of the Advanced Diagnostic Pain Treatment Centers in New Haven, CT, said that existing Food and Drug Administration’s rules should be enough to protect the use of any new drug.
“Oh, it is very addictive,” he said, “but so are oxycodone, Dilaudid, Demerol, and morphine. Why should this product be discriminated more so than the others? If the controls in place are failing, then we need to look at how to improve them for all opiate class medications. Curtailing the availability of opioids would not help us provide medical care.”