Notre Dame researchers say they found link between rising heroin deaths and OxyContin

Notre Dame researchers say they found link between rising heroin deaths and OxyContin // WSBT 22

Researchers at the University of Notre Dame have discovered a link between rising heroin deaths and the opioid OxyContin.

They say efforts by drug manufacturers to make OxyContin less prone to abuse did nothing to reduce the number of drug overdose deaths across the nation.

Researchers believe this actually fueled a growing heroin epidemic.

The abuse-deterrent version of OxyContin reduced opioid deaths. Those addicted to the drug began looking for an alternative and that was heroin.

In 2010, the drug manufacturer Purdue Pharma attempted to create a new formula for the opioid painkiller OxyContin.

University of Notre Dame Professor William Evans says it didn't go as planned.

"The goal was to try to decrease the number of abuse incidences associated with the drug. The problem was that there was already a cheap alternative available to everyone and that was heroin,” said Evans.

Evans says up to that point in 2010, heroin deaths were relatively low but slowly increasing.

As the data shows, after the reformulation of OxyContin, the number of heroin deaths skyrocketed.

"We generate this little statistical model that tells us, ‘Is there a break in the data?’ The computer tells us that the break in the data usually occurs about a month after the reformulation,” said Evans.

Staff at Life Treatment Centers in South Bend say it's a problem they hear about all too often.

"We really have to get to that place where we do some prevention. We need to educate, like I said before, as young as elementary school children about pain medication, about heroin, about all types of drugs,” said Sheila Miller, Life Treatment Centers Clinical staff supervisor.

How does this research help with today's current opioid epidemic?

Evans says the focus needs to shift to prevention, treatment and removing heroin off the streets.

"The FDA is really trying to encourage drug manufacturers to generate these deterrent formulations of all of their opioids. The problem is if you have a readily available and cheap alternative like heroin out there, what these might do is encourage people to shift to this riskier drug,” said Evans.

A Purdue Pharma Spokesperson sent us the statement below:

In 2010, the FDA approved reformulated OxyContin with properties intended to deter abuse, by making the tablets harder to crush and more difficult to snort and inject. Opioids with abuse-deterrent properties are not by themselves a solution – they make abuse more difficult but they are not abuse-proof and they don’t prevent addiction. Nonetheless they are recognized by leading government agencies and elected officials as part of a multifaceted approach to addressing prescription opioid abuse. Continuing to expand access to opioids with abuse-deterrent properties is one component of the FDA Opioids Action Plan, but their potential cannot be fully realized until more prescription opioids are converted to abuse-deterrent formulations.
OxyContin is approved for the management of pain severe enough to require daily, around-the-clock, long-term opioid treatment and for which alternative treatment options are inadequate. It is unfortunate and tragic that reformulating an opioid pain medication that was being abused may have led some of the individuals abusing that medication to abuse alternative substances, including heroin. Sadly, people abuse both licit and illicit drugs. However, helping to protect our medicines from abuse benefits both patients and the public.
According to a study authored by federal health officials that was published in The New England Journal of Medicine in January 2016, less than four-percent of those who abuse opioids progress to heroin. And, according to government data, heroin increase started in 2007 because it was inexpensive and accessible. Government surveys have stated efforts such as abuse-deterrent formulations and prescription monitoring programs have not hastened the move to heroin, but they are not expected to solely prevent it either.
We are deeply concerned about the opioid crisis and we are dedicated to helping solve the problem. Although our products account for less than 2% of the total opioid prescriptions, we believe it is essential that those who prescribe our medicines fully understand their risks, even when used appropriately. While opioids with abuse-deterrent properties cannot solely solve the problem of prescription opioid abuse, they along with other initiatives, play an important role in a comprehensive approach to addressing the problem.
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