OxyContin Still Being Abused by Addicts

By Pat Anson, Editor

Drug addicts are still finding ways to snort and inject OxyContin, five years after the painkiller was reintroduced in an abuse deterrent formula.

Researchers at Washington University School of Medicine in St. Louis surveyed almost 11,000 opioid abusers at 150 drug-treatment facilities and found that over a quarter of them still abused the painkiller, even though the new formulation of OxyContin is harder to crush or liquefy. Their study is being published in JAMA Psychiatry.

The abuse-deterrent formulation of OxyContin was introduced by Purdue Pharma in 2010, at a time when the painkiller was widely being abused. Nearly half of patients entering drug treatment facilities that year for opioid abuse said they had used OxyContin to get high at least once in the previous 30 days.

Two years later, after the abuse-deterrent formulation was introduced, the percentage of opioid abusers entering rehab who used OxyContin had fallen to 26 percent.

"We found that the abuse-deterrent formulation was useful as a first line of defense. OxyContin abuse in people seeking treatment declined, but that decline slowed after a while," said senior investigator Theodore J. Cicero, PhD, a professor of neuropharmacology in psychiatry.

"The newer formulations are less attractive to abusers, but the reality is -- and our data demonstrate this quite clearly -- it's naïve to think that by making an abuse-deterrent pill we can eliminate drug abuse. There are people who will continue to use, no matter what the drug makers do, and until we focus more on why people use these drugs, we won't be able to solve this problem."

The findings are not unexpected, according to a prominent pain physician.

“No one should expect that ADF's (abuse deterrent formulations) are not going to be abused.  They will.  Some ADF's will be more effective in deterring certain methods of abuse like injecting or snorting.  People who want to abuse can just take more orally or with enough effort can overcome the ADF technology,” said Lynn R. Webster, MD, a past president of the American Academy of Pain Medicine and vice president of scientific affairs at PRA Health Sciences.

“As long as an opioid has rewarding properties a certain part of society will seek them out for abuse.  This is why we need to be realistic about what an ADF can accomplish.  We need to decrease the demand and eventually replace the type of opioids that produce liking with drugs that are not as rewarding but more effective.”   

Researchers say about a third of the addicts who still abused OxyContin had found a way to inhale or inject it. The rest took the painkiller orally. Even more worrisome, almost half of the drug abusers surveyed in 2014 reported they had used heroin in the 30 days before they entered treatment.

"Some people found ways to get around the abuse-deterrent formulation so that they could snort or inject it, and others simply swallowed the pills," Cicero explained. "But many people switched to heroin, and that's a major concern."

Cicero says 70% of the addicts who stopped using OxyContin and switched to other drugs were using heroin.

“Abuse-deterrent formulations can have the intended purpose of curtailing abuse, but the extent of their effectiveness has clear limits, resulting in a significant level of residual abuse. Consequently, although drug abuse policy should focus on limiting supplies of prescription analgesics for abuse, including ADF technology, efforts to reduce supply alone will not mitigate the opioid abuse problem in this country,” Cicero wrote in the study.

“We agree with Dr. Cicero that abuse-deterrent formulations are a valuable public health tool that must be part of any comprehensive approach to combatting prescription drug abuse. The report parallels other studies that show reformulated OxyContin is associated with a reduction in abuse,” said David Haddox, MD, V.P. of health policy at Purdue Pharma.  

“The product’s label states that OxyContin has physical and chemical properties expected to make abuse via injection difficult and to reduce abuse via snorting. The label also states that abuse of OxyContin by these routes, as well as the oral route, is still possible.

Many pain patients with legitimate prescriptions for OxyContin say the abuse deterrent formulation is not as effective at providing pain relief as the old one. Others complain about side effects such as gastrointestinal problems.

Abuse deterrent technology is a key part of the Food and Drug Administration’s efforts at combatting the so-called epidemic of prescription drug abuse. Over 16,500 deaths in the U.S. were linked to opioids in 2010.

According to the National Institutes of Health, only about 5% of patients taking opioids as directed for a year end up with an addiction problem.