FDA Study Calls for More Aggressive Opioid Regulation

By Pat Anson, Editor

A new report commissioned by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration is calling for a sustained and coordinated national campaign to combat the opioid crisis, including more aggressive regulation of opioids by the FDA and a “cultural change” in the prescribing of opioid medication,

The report by a special committee of the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine (NASEM) focuses primarily on restricting the supply of prescription opioids, not illicit opioids such as heroin and fentanyl, which are now driving the so-called opioid epidemic.

"The broad reach of the epidemic has blurred the formerly distinct social boundary between prescribed opioids and illegally manufactured ones, such as heroin," said committee chair Richard Bonnie, a Professor of Medicine and Law at the University of Virginia.

“This report provides an action plan directed particularly at the health professions and government agencies responsible for regulating them. This plan aims to help the millions of people who suffer from chronic pain while reducing unnecessary opioid prescribing. We also wanted to convey a clear message about the magnitude of the challenge. This epidemic took nearly two decades to develop, and it will take years to unravel."

The report estimates that at least 2 million people in the U.S. have an “opioid use disorder” involving prescription opioids -- meaning they are addicted to prescription painkillers -- and almost 600,000 have an opioid use disorder involving heroin.

Although opioid prescribing has been declining and the number of overdose deaths from prescription opioids has remained relatively stable in recent years, deaths from illicit opioids such as heroin have tripled in the past decade.



The report claimed that many people who normally would use prescription opioids have transitioned to heroin because of the declining price of heroin and the introduction of abuse-deterrent formulations that make opioid medication harder to snort or inject. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) has said there is no evidence to support the theory that legitimate patients are transitioning to heroin.

"Evidence does not support the hypothesis that initiatives intended to reduce opioid prescribing increase illicit opioid-related overdose at a population level," Deborah Dowell, MD, of the CDC recently wrote in the Annals of Internal Medicine.

The NASEM committee recommended that further efforts be made to restrict the supply of opioid medication, even though there is “limited evidence” that steps taken so far are working and may, in fact, be harming patients.

“Although more research is needed, limited evidence suggests that state and local interventions aimed at reducing the supply of prescription opioids in the community may help curtail access. Importantly, however, none of these studies investigates the impact of reduced access on the well-being of individuals suffering from pain whose access to opioids was curtailed,” the report states.

The NASEM report also recommends broader insurance coverage of non-opioid treatments.and better education of physicians in pain management.

“The committee’s recommended changes to provider education and payer policy should be accompanied by a change in patient expectations with respect to the treatment and management of chronic pain. Attention is not being paid to educating the general public on the risks and benefits of opioid therapy, or the comparative effectiveness of opioids with nonopioid or nonpharmacologic therapies,” the committee said.

The committee also recommended that the FDA conduct a full review of currently approved opioids and that it consider “public health considerations” in all of its regulatory decisions. Such a policy would require the agency to not only consider the safety and efficacy of opioids for legitimate pain needs, but also their impact on addicts and the illicit drug market.

“I was encouraged to see that many of NASEM’s recommendations for the FDA are in areas where we’ve already made new commitments,” FDA commissioner Scott Gottlieb, MD, said in a statement.  “Among these important new actions is our work to ensure drug approval and removal decisions are made within a benefit-risk framework that evaluates not only the outcomes of opioids when used as prescribed, but also the public health effects of the inappropriate use of these drugs.”

Last month the FDA asked that the opioid painkiller Opana ER be removed from the market, not because it was harming legitimate pain patients, but because addicts were abusing it and spreading infectious diseases through infected needles. It was the first time the agency has taken steps to remove an opioid from the market.

“These are just some of the important efforts we have underway. But to make a meaningful impact, this epidemic must be addressed as a public health emergency, and requires an all-of-the-above approach. As underscored in the NASEM report, the scope of this epidemic is so large, it’s going to require a coordinated effort that includes federal, state, and local partners,” Gottlieb said.

The NASEM study was funded by the FDA.