CDC: Painkillers No Longer Driving Opioid Epidemic

By Pat Anson, Editor

A top official for the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has acknowledged that prescription painkillers are no longer the driving force behind the nation’s so-called opioid epidemic.

In testimony last week at a congressional hearing, Debra Houry, MD, Director of the CDC’s National Center for Injury Prevention and Control, said that heroin and illicit fentanyl were primarily to blame for the soaring rate of drug overdoses.

“Although prescription opioids were driving the increase in overdose deaths for many years, more recently, the large increase in overdose deaths has been due mainly to increases in heroin and synthetic opioid overdose deaths, not prescription opioids. Importantly, the available data indicate these increases are largely due to illicitly manufactured fentanyl,” Houry said in her prepared testimony before the House Energy and Commerce Committee's Oversight and Investigations Subcommittee.

The CDC blamed over 33,000 deaths on opioids in 2015, less than half of which were linked to pain medication.  

While painkillers may be playing less of a role in the overdose epidemic, Houry believes pain medication is still a gateway drug for many abusers. She cited statistics from Ohio showing that nearly two-thirds of the people who overdosed on heroin or fentanyl received at least one opioid prescription in the seven years before their deaths.  

"The rise in fentanyl, heroin, and prescription drug involved overdoses are not unrelated,” Houry said. “While most people who misuse prescription opioids do not go on to use heroin, the small percentage (about four percent) who do account for a majority of people recently initiating heroin use.”

Houry also disputed reports that efforts to reduce opioid prescribing have led to increased use of illegal drugs. It was her office that oversaw the development of controversial CDC guidelines that discourage doctors from prescribing opioids for chronic pain. 



“Some have suggested that policies meant to limit inappropriate opioid prescribing have led to an increase in heroin use by driving people who misuse opioids to heroin,” Houry testified.  “Recent research, however, has indicated otherwise. One study found that the shift to heroin use began before the recent uptick in these policies, but that other factors (such as heroin market forces, increased accessibility, reduced price, and high purity of heroin) appear to be major drivers of the recent increases in rates of heroin use.”

The “recent research” Houry cited was a report published in the New England Journal of Medicine in January, 2016 – a full two months before the CDC opioid guidelines were even released. She offered no evidence to support her claim that the guidelines were having no impact on heroin use.

Some Patients Turning to Illegal Drugs

According to a recent survey of over 3,100 patients by Pain News Network and the International Pain Foundation, the CDC guidelines have reduced access to pain care, harmed many patients and caused some to turn to illegal drugs for pain relief.

Over 70 percent said their opioid doses have been reduced or cutoff by their doctors in the past year. And one out of ten patients (11%) said they had obtained opioids illegally for pain relief since the guidelines came out. 

“The one person I know who says the recent guidelines have helped (is) my neighbor who is a heroin dealer. He says business has quadrupled since doctors have started becoming too afraid to help people in pain,” one patient wrote.

“This has caused me far more pain and suffering in my life, and increased my stress and anxiety, and depression, because nobody seems to care that I suffer like this,” said another patient. “This has also caused me to turn to using heroin, because I have nothing left now at this point and cannot suffer like this.”

“Because people are unable to get adequate pain relief from prescribed medications due to the fear instilled to doctors by these ‘guidelines,' most people, in my experience, are turning to heroin. This explains not only an increase in overdoses but also an increase in suicide from chronic pain patients,” wrote another.

“I found it easier to get medications through the black market than through my doctor. I spend about $1,000 per month in medications through the black market, but in the end that is less than the deductible on my insurance. And they deliver to my house!” a patient said.  

“My fear right now is that I've been using medications I buy from a dealer. They appear to be real and thus far I've been OK, but I'm afraid that I may eventually hit a bad batch laced with fentanyl,” said a patient. 

Houry’s testimony came on the same day the Drug Enforcement Administration warned that counterfeit painkillers made with fentanyl have killed dozens of people in the Phoenix area.

The DEA said at least 32 deaths in the last 18 months in Maricopa County, Arizona have been linked to fake pills laced with fentanyl that were disguised to look like oxycodone tablets. In nearly 75% of the overdoses, examiners also found dipyrone (Metamizole), a painkiller banned for use in the U.S. since 1977. 

Fentanyl is a synthetic opioid 100 times more potent that morphine. It is sold legally in sprays, patches and lozenges to treat severe chronic pain.

counterfeit oxycodone (dea photo)

counterfeit oxycodone (dea photo)

The DEA says illicit batches of fentanyl are being made in China and exported to Mexico, where drug dealers mix it with heroin or turn it into counterfeit medication before smuggling it into the U.S.

The DEA released detailed demographic information on the age, sex and ethnicity of the people who overdosed in Arizona. It did not say how many of the dead were patients looking for pain relief.