Better Analysis Needed on Non-Medical Use of Opioids

By Willem Scholten, PharmD MPA, Guest Columnist

A few months ago, the medical journal World Psychiatry published an article that focused on the global non-medical use of prescription drugs, particularly psychoactive substances such as opioids.

Unfortunately, the two authors -- Dr. Silvia Martins and Dr. Lilian Ghandour -- ignored the distinction between prescription and prescribed opioids, adding unnecessary confusion to the already complex debate about access to pain treatment. Further, Dr. Martins said in the Washington Post that the non-medical use of psychoactive substances could turn into a pandemic if we are not careful.

Both authors are affiliated with Columbia University’s Mailman Institute of Public Health, which claims to work in the interest of underserved people in developing countries. Access to effective pain treatment in developing countries is already now more difficult than in the U.S.

Elsewhere, I have demonstrated that access to prescribed opioids for adequate pain treatment is a problem for 5.5 billion people living in countries where opioid analgesics are not available or inaccessible for patients in need.

In most countries, the per capita consumption of legitimately prescribed opioid analgesics (as officially reported to the International Narcotics Control Board) remains much lower than in the U.S. and Canada, in extreme cases even up to 50,000 times lower.

Distinction Between “Prescribed” and “Prescription” is Key

There is a vast difference between prescription and prescribed opioids. Prescription opioids are intended to be prescribed as medicines. Prescribed medicines are actually prescribed by a physician and dispensed by a pharmacy.

About 75% of fatal overdoses from prescription opioids in the U.S. occur in people who have not been prescribed opioids during the three months preceding their deaths. Thus, the majority must have obtained these prescription opioids on the black or gray market.

Without referencing the data, Drs. Martins and Ghandour claim that prescription opioids are causing serious problems in other parts of the world. However, data from the European Monitoring Centre for Drug and Drug Addiction and the European Drug Report indicate that diversion of prescription opioids is not a serious problem in Europe. In other regions of the world, per capita prescription of opioids is very low.

Drs. Martins and Ghandour claim a high prevalence of non-medical use of prescription opioids in Saudi Arabia. However, those medicines are hardly ever prescribed in that country and medical consumption rates are only about 2.5 % of the U.S. volume. Therefore, Saudi Arabia’s non-medical use of prescription opioids can hardly originate from prescribed opioids.

Unfortunately, World Psychiatry refused to publish a letter I wrote with other experts which addressed the misunderstandings stemming from Drs. Martins and Ghandour’s article.

PROP and the Anti-Opioid Lobby

The anti-opioid lobby in the U.S. does not shy away from using arguments not based on facts, just like Drs. Martins and Ghandour in their article. For example, Physicians for Responsible Opioid Prescribing (PROP) perpetuates the mistaken conflation of prescription and prescribed opioids, advocating in the U.S. against the legitimate medical prescribing of opioid analgesics. PROP tries to justify its position using false statistics, as I demonstrated in a recent publication.

Moreover, PROP leadership participated in drafting the 2016 CDC Guideline for Prescribing Opioids for Chronic Pain. PROP Executive Director Dr. Andrew Kolodny disclosed his involvement, but PROP President Dr. Jane Ballantyne and PROP Vice President Dr. Gary Franklin did not list the group as a relevant conflict of interest on their disclosure forms.

The Steve Rummler Hope Foundation is the “fiscal sponsor” of PROP. Its vision is “a world where individuals with chronic pain receive integrated care focused on wellness rather than drugs.” For patients with moderate or severe pain, this can hardly be an effective and humane treatment. PROP’s close ties with the Steve Rummler Foundation are revealed by Dr. Kolodny’s and Dr. Ballantyne’s membership on its medical advisory committee.

Policies Should Balance All Public Health Interests

Indeed, it is correct to attend to the non-medical use of psychoactive substances. However, the situation outside the U.S. is really different. In many countries, patients have no access to adequate pain management. Measures to address non-medical use of opioids should not hamper access to effective pain management.

Policymakers in countries with a low per capita medical opioid consumption and low prescription rates should first analyse how prescription opioids that have not been prescribed enter circulation. The relationship between the non-medical use of prescription opioids and illicitly produced substances such as heroin should also be taken into consideration. Then, appropriate interventions to halt the diversion should be developed.

In parallel, policymakers should develop policies aimed at ensuring adequate provision of pain treatment as recommended by the World Health Organization. Optimal public health outcomes can only be attained when policies to minimize non-medical use are balanced with policies to maximize access to adequate pain management. Crafting such policies entails correctly distinguishing between prescribed and prescription opioids.

Willem Scholten, PharmD MPA, is an independent consultant for medicines and controlled substances at Willem Scholten Consultancy in the Netherlands. This has included work for DrugScience, Grünenthal, Jazz Pharmaceuticals, Mundipharma, Pinney Associates and the World Health Organization. Dr. Scholten is also a board member of International Doctors for Healthier Drug Policies.

He wishes to acknowledge Dr. Katherine Pettus for her contribution to this article.

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The information in this column should not be considered as professional medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. It is for informational purposes only and represents the author’s opinions alone. It does not inherently express or reflect the views, opinions and/or positions of Pain News Network.