Are Most Retired NFL Players Really Addicts?

By Lynn Webster, MD, PNN Columnist

Many of us watched the Super Bowl on Sunday. It was a great defensive game, which means there was a lot of hard-hitting contact. Physical trauma can bring about long-term consequences and that is the subject of a recent New York Times column, "For NFL Retirees, Opioids Bring More Pain" by Ken Belson.

Belson suggests that many retired NFL players become addicted to opioid medication. I don’t know how many former players become addicted, but the summation of players he describes as addicted doesn’t quite add up.

The column cites a recent study published in the Clinical Journal of Sport Medicine that found about 26 percent of retired football players used opioid medication during the past 30 days. Belson suggests that percentage is excessive.

Of course, the players were not addicted just because they used an opioid. Moreover, 26 percent does not seem to be an unreasonable number, given that this is a population with a history of tremendous physical trauma. In fact, it seems like a surprisingly low number given that most former football players experienced enormous physical trauma for years.

Whatever the actual data may be, we can probably attribute the use or misuse of opioids to the fact that these retired players were trying to mitigate severe pain.  

What is Misuse?


The accepted definition of opioid "misuse" is taking an opioid contrary to how it was prescribed, even if it is taken to treat pain. For example, let's say a person is told they can use one hydrocodone three times a day. If that person uses one pill six times a day so they can function (and not to get high), that is considered misusing. However, that is not a sign of addiction. It only reflects the person's desire to escape pain and the therapeutic inadequacy of the prescribed medication. 

Misuse of opioids in the general population is relatively rare, according to a large new study published in the journal Pharmacoepidemiology & Drug Safety. Over 31,000 adults were surveyed about their opioid use, and only 4.4% admitted taking a larger dose or a dose more frequently than prescribed.  

The figure below helps explain the relationships of misuse, abuse and addiction. Some retired football players may misuse their medication, but few will abuse them and even fewer will become addicted. All people with addiction abuse their medication. But people who misuse their medication may not be abusing or addicted to it.  


In his column, Belson cites a 2011 survey by researchers at the Washington University School of Medicine that found over half of former NFL players used opioids during their playing careers and 71 percent misused them.

The same study found that many of these retired players who misused opioids were heavy drinkers. But in his column, Belson reported that "players who abused opioids” were likely to be heavy drinkers.  

Belson uses the words “misuse” and “abuse” interchangeably, as if they have the same meaning. They do not. If Belson means that retired players took opioids in excess of what their doctors prescribed due to uncontrolled pain, that would not be abuse. It would be misuse. If the players were using opioids to get high, that would be abuse. 

Belson mentions one retired player using the same amount of pain medicine as a stage 4 cancer patient and suggests that is an excessive amount. However, the player's need for that amount of opioids should not surprise us. Cancer pain is not more painful than non-cancer pain. People with painful diseases and physical injuries may have pain just as debilitating as a patient dying from cancer.

It is unfortunate, but not shocking, that a retired football player would have as much pain as someone dying of cancer. When someone who does not have cancer uses excessive medication to relieve pain, we are more likely to label that as "abuse." We show more compassion to patients with cancer pain than we do toward anyone else who requires treatment for chronic pain.  

Why We Need Clarity About Our Terms 

Belson writes, "Now, a growing number (of players) are saying the easy access to pills turned them into addicts." That is another statement that gravely concerns me. It is misleading and consistent with the common misunderstanding of what causes addiction or even what addiction is.  

Becoming dependent on opioids, becoming tolerant to opioids, requiring more opioids over time to achieve the same level of pain relief, and experiencing withdrawal if the opioids are suddenly stopped are not necessarily signs of addiction, any more than they would be if the same consequences resulted from taking a blood pressure medication or a sleep aid.  

People frequently write and talk about misuse, abuse and addiction, but many of them don't know what the terms mean.  This has troubling implications for the pain and addiction communities. Mislabeling and misdiagnosing people with addiction leads to harmful policies that adversely affect treatment. It even has legal implications that prevent people in pain or with addiction from accessing appropriate clinical care.  

Severe chronic pain and addiction can devastate lives. But we need to know the differences between misuse of, abuse of, and addiction to medications for the appropriate policies to be implemented. 

Lynn Webster.jpg

Lynn R. Webster, MD, is a vice president of scientific affairs for PRA Health Sciences and consults with the pharmaceutical industry. He is a former president of the American Academy of Pain Medicine and the author of “The Painful Truth: What Chronic Pain Is Really Like and Why It Matters to Each of Us.”

You can find Lynn on Twitter: @LynnRWebsterMD. 

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.

FDA Warns Veterinarians of Pet Owners Abusing Opioids

By Pat Anson, Editor

Doctors and patients aren’t the only ones under scrutiny for prescribing and using opioid pain medication. Pet owners are also coming under suspicion for diverting and abusing opioids intended for their animals.

The Food and Drug Administration today warned veterinarians to be cautious when prescribing opioids and be on the alert for people who may be using their pets to gain access to the drugs.


“We recognize that opioids and other pain medications have a legitimate and important role in treating pain in animals – just as they do for people,” FDA commissioner Scott Gottlieb, MD, said in a statement.

“But just like the opioid medications used in humans, these drugs have potentially serious risks, not just for the animal patients, but also because of their potential to lead to addiction, abuse and overdose in humans who may divert them for their own use.”

Only one opioid is currently approved by the FDA for use in animals, a potent fentanyl medication for post-surgical pain that is sold under the brand name Recuvyra.  

The maker of another fentanyl based product -- carfentanil -- voluntarily surrendered approval for the drug in March because of growing signs it was being diverted. Carfentanil is so potent it was used by veterinarians as an anesthetic on elephants.   

With few options to choose from, some veterinarians are legally prescribing tramadol and others opioids intended for humans to relieve pain in pets. The FDA is recommending veterinarians use alternatives to opioids whenever possible and look for signs of opioid abuse by pet owners and their own employees.

“We’re advising veterinarians to develop a safety plan in the event they encounter a situation involving opioid diversion or clients seeking opioids under the guise of treating their pets; and taking steps to help veterinarians spot the signs of opioid abuse,” Gottlieb said.

Possible warning signs of opioid abuse are suspicious injuries to animals, a pet owner asking for specific medication by name, or asking for refills of lost or stolen medication.

Gottlieb’s statement was released one week after a small study published in the American Journal of Public Health suggested that some pet owners are purposely injuring their animals to gain access to opioids.

"Our results indicate that we should be paying more attention to how opioid abusers are seeking their drugs -- including through veterinary clinics," said Lili Tenney, deputy director of the Center for Health, Work & Environment at the Colorado School of Public Health.

In a survey of 189 Colorado veterinarians, 13 percent reported they had seen a client who they believed had purposefully injured a pet or made them ill. Nearly half the vets said they knew of a pet owner or employee who was abusing opioids; and 12 percent suspected a staff member of diverting opioids or abusing them.

Colorado and Maine require veterinarians to look at a pet owner’s medication history before dispensing opioids or writing a prescription.  Over a dozen states require veterinarians to report when they prescribe opioids to a prescription drug database.

Do 80% of Heroin Users Really Start With a Prescription?

By Roger Chriss, Columnist

U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions recently announced a new plan by the DEA to further tighten production quotas for opioid pain medication as a step in the fight against opioid abuse and addiction.

The proposal appears in the Federal Register with the following explanation:

“Users may be initiated into a life of substance abuse and dependency after first obtaining these drugs from their health care providers…. Once ensnared, dependency on potent and dangerous street drugs may ensue. About 80% of heroin users first misused prescription opioids. Thus, it may be inferred that current users of heroin and fentanyl largely entered the gateway as part of the populations who previously misused prescription opioids."

This is not a new claim by the DEA. In its 360 Strategy: Diversion Control, the DEA plainly states, “The connection between prescription opioid abuse and heroin use is clear, with 80% of new heroin abusers starting their opioid addiction by misusing prescription medications.”


Where does the 80% figure come from?

The DEA cites the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA) as its source, while NIDA in turn references a 2013 study by the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Administration (SAMHSA).

SAMHSA pooled a decade's worth of data from the National Survey on Drug Use and Health and found that “four out of five recent heroin initiates (79.5 percent) previously used NMPR (nonmedical use of pain relievers)."

But the SAMHSA study did not examine how many of those heroin users had a valid prescription for opioids, so the DEA claim about users "first obtaining these drugs from their health care providers" is untrue. SAMHSA also notes that "the literature on transition from NMPR to heroin use is relatively sparse" and that the "vast majority" of people who abuse opioid medication never actually progress to heroin.

The abuse of opioid medication by heroin users also varies considerably by time, region and demographics -- so must users don't fit neatly into the 80% claim. A review article in The New England Journal of Medicine reports that prior nonmedical use of opioid medication was found in 50% of young adult heroin users in Ohio, in 86% of heroin users in New York and Los Angeles, and in 40%, 39%, and 70% of heroin users in San Diego, Seattle, and New York respectively.

Conversely, studies on the medical use of opioid analgesics show very low rates of opioid addiction. A review in the journal Addiction concluded that “The available evidence suggests that opioid analgesics for chronic pain conditions are not associated with a major risk for developing dependence.”

A 2016 article in The New England Journal of Medicine by Dr. Nora Volkow, Director of NIDA, also explains that “addiction occurs in only a small percentage of persons who are exposed to opioids—even among those with preexisting vulnerabilities.”

‘Opiophobia’ Returns

But despite this well-established information, the 80% statistic is being used to set policy and justify a supply-side approach to the opioid addiction crisis. States are citing the number as they pass new legislation to restrict opioid prescribing, health insurers are using it as they enact new policies to limit medical opioid use, and doctors are telling patients it’s one of the reasons they won’t prescribe opioids.

According to one addiction treatment specialist, the goal of the DEA quota reductions should be to take opioid prescribing back to levels where they stood two decades ago.

“We‘re back down to 2006 levels, but the goal should be to get us back down to 1995 levels. So this means many Americans are still going to be addicted until prescribing becomes more cautious,” Andrew Kolodny, MD, founder of Physicians for Responsible Opioid Prescribing (PROP), told STAT.  

But this assumes that pre-1995 opioid prescribing levels were adequate. According to Jeffrey Singer, MD, a Senior Fellow at the CATO Institute, that would be a mistake.

“It must be remembered that numerous studies throughout the 1970s, 1980s, and 1990s documented that patients were being undertreated for pain because of an irrational fear of opioids,” Singer wrote. “Policymakers need to disabuse themselves of the notion that the prescription of opioids to patients by doctors is at the heart of the problem. That notion has made too many patients suffer needlessly as the old ‘opiophobia’ of the 1970s and 1980s has returned.”

Moreover, it assumes that opioids have no clinical benefit. But they are medically very useful, not only in the acute and surgical setting, but also for a variety of chronic pain conditions, such as neuropathy and restless leg syndrome.

The 80% statistic is misleading and encourages faulty assumptions about the overdose crisis and medical care. It is shifting resources away from the public health interventions that would most likely help in the crisis and removes a valid medical treatment for people with a wide range of ailments.

To read and comment on the DEA’s quota proposal, click here. All comments must be received by May 4, 2018.

Roger Chriss.jpg

Roger Chriss lives with Ehlers Danlos syndrome and is a proud member of the Ehlers-Danlos Society. Roger is a technical consultant in Washington state, where he specializes in mathematics and research.

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.

Rescheduling Hydrocodone May Have Increased Abuse

By Pat Anson, Editor

Four years ago that the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration ordered the rescheduling of hydrocodone from a Schedule III controlled substance to the more restrictive category of Schedule II.  The move was intended to reduce the diversion and abuse of hydrocodone, which at one time was the most widely prescribed drug in the United States.

It turns out the rescheduling may have had the unintended effect of increasing the diversion and abuse of opioid medication by elderly Americans.

According to a new study by researchers at the University of Texas Medical Branch (UTMB), hydrocodone prescriptions for Medicare beneficiaries declined after the rescheduling, but opioid-related hospitalization of elderly patients increased for those who did not have a prescription for opioids.


"The 2014 federal hydrocodone rescheduling policy was associated with decreased opiate use among the elderly," said lead author Yong-Fang Kuo, PhD, a professor of Preventive Medicine and Community Health at UTMB.

"However, we also observed a 24 percent increase in opioid-related hospitalizations in Medicare patients without documented opioid prescriptions, which may represent an increase in illegal use."

Kuo and her colleagues say Medicare beneficiaries are among the largest consumers of prescription opioids. They speculated that opioid abuse by the elderly may be a coping mechanism to deal with poor health and depression, and that opioid diversion may be a sign of drug dealing.

“An economic purpose may relate to monetary gains from the diversion and sale to others,” Kuo wrote. “It is important for prescribers to understand that their elderly Medicare beneficiaries might be obtaining opioids from sources that are not documented in their medical records. There is a need for additional research on why, where, and how these Medicare enrollees are obtaining opioids.”

The UTMB research team analyzed a large sample of Medicare Part D enrollment and claims data from 2012 through 2015. Their study was published in the Journal of the American Geriatrics Society.

The reclassification of hydrocodone to a Schedule II controlled substance limited patients to an initial 90-day supply and required them to see a doctor for a new prescription each time they need a 30-day refill. Prescriptions for Schedule II drugs also cannot be phoned or faxed in by physicians.

In 2012, over 135 million prescriptions were written in the U.S. for hydrocodone products such as Vicodin, Lortab and Norco.  That fell to 90 million prescriptions by 2016.

Overall Opioid Prescribing Down

Hydrocodone isn't the only opioid medication to see steep declines in prescribing. The volume of opioid prescriptions filled last year dropped by 12 percent, the largest decline in 25 years according to a new report by the IQVIA Institute.  Opioid prescriptions have been falling since 2011, while dispensing of addiction treatment drugs like buprenorphine (Suboxone) and methadone have risen sharply.

“The U.S. opioid epidemic is one of the most challenging public health crises we face as a nation," said Murray Aitken, IQVIA senior vice president and executive director of the IQVIA Institute for Human Data Science.

“Our research and analytics revealed that 2017 saw new therapy starts for prescription opioids in pain management decline nearly 8 percent, with a near doubling of medication-assisted therapies (MATs) for opioid use dependence to 82,000 prescriptions per month. This suggests that healthcare professionals are prescribing opioids less often for pain treatment, but they are actively prescribing MATs to address opioid addiction."

All 50 states and Washington DC had declines in opioid prescribing of 5 percent or more in 2017, with some of the states hardest hit by the opioid crisis -- like West Virginia and Pennsylvania --  showing declines of over 10 percent. Nevertheless, the number of Americans overdosing continues to rise due to increased use of black market drugs like illicit fentanyl, heroin and cocaine, which now account for about two-thirds of all drug deaths.

Heroin Overdoses in ER's Surpass Rx Opioid Overdoses

By Pat Anson, Editor

The number of patients admitted and discharged from U.S. hospitals for abuse of opioid pain medication has declined significantly this decade, while the abuse of heroin and illicit fentanyl has surged, according to a new study that documents the shifting nature of the nation’s overdose crisis.

Researchers at Stanford University analyzed national trends in hospital inpatient and emergency department (ED) discharges for opioid abuse, dependence and poisoning from 1997 to 2014, the last year data was available.

They found that hospital admissions for overdoses from pain medication started falling in 2010, the same year that opioid prescriptions began declining.

At the same time, hospital discharge rates for heroin poisoning increased at an annual rate of over 31 percent. By 2014, heroin overdoses exceeded those from prescription opioids in emergency rooms by almost a 2 to 1 margin.

“After 2008, ED discharge rates for heroin poisoning increased more sharply than the rates for any opioid poisoning -- signaling that the scope of heroin harm is worse than previously suggested -- while discharges for prescription opioid poisoning recently began to decline in both the ED and inpatient settings,” researchers reported in the journal Health Affairs.


“While these changes could be the result of national and local policies aimed at reducing the prescribing of opioids, the expanded availability of heroin and new lethal illicit drugs, such as nonpharmaceutical fentanyl, could mean that they are being used instead of prescription opioids.”

The findings add evidence to recent public health concerns that people misusing or addicted to prescription opioids are switching to heroin and synthetic opioids such as fentanyl because they are cheaper and easier to get.

"This suggests that the expanded availability of lethal illicit drugs are being used to replace prescription opioids in some cases," said Tina Hernandez-Boussard, PhD, associate professor of medicine, of biomedical data sciences and of surgery at Stanford University School of Medicine.

source: health affairs

source: health affairs

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has been reluctant to admit that efforts to reduce opioid prescribing could be backfiring, although their own statistics indicate otherwise.  Deaths involving heroin and synthetic opioids overtook overdoses linked to prescription opioids in 2016, the same year the CDC released its opioid prescribing guidelines.

As PNN has reported,  the CDC last week launched a public awareness campaign to combat the abuse of prescription opioids, a marketing effort driven by surveys and focus groups that completely ignores the scourge of heroin and illicit fentanyl.

“The campaign does not include messages about heroin. Specificity is a best practice in communication, and the Rx Awareness campaign messaging focuses on the critical issue of prescription opioids. Given the broad target audience, focusing on prescription opioids avoids diluting the campaign messaging. Heroin is a related topic that also needs formative research and message testing,” the CDC explained.

The Stanford study found that discharge rates for prescription opioid poisonings declined annually by about 5 percent from 2010 to 2014, while discharge rates for heroin poisoning increased at an annual rate of 31.4 percent from 2008 to 2014. The trend has likely worsened since 2014, as heroin and illicit fentanyl are even more widely available on the black market.

"I'm cautiously optimistic that prescribing clinicians are positively reacting to the opioid crisis and therefore prescription opioids are contributing less to the overall drug epidemic," Hernandez-Boussard said. "That's the good news. The bad news is that although prescription opioid use decreased, heroin and methadone greatly increased.”

Anna Lembke, MD, an associate professor of psychiatry at Stanford and a board member of Physicians for Responsible Opioid Prescribing (PROP), says she has no doubt many people addicted to prescription opioids have switched to using heroin or illicit fentanyl.

"My patients have told me that's exactly what they did," said Lembke. "Heroin was cheaper and easier to get."

Do You Use Alcohol to Relieve Chronic Pain?

By Rochelle Odell, Columnist

I’m in a Complex Regional Pain Syndrome (CRPS/RSD) support group and one of our members recently asked if any members were turning to alcohol because their pain medication had been reduced or stopped.

It piqued my interest, so I began researching the topic. There aren’t many current studies or reports, but it’s a valid question since alcohol is much easier to obtain than pain medication.

Alcohol was among the earliest substances used to relieve physical pain and, of course, many people use it to cope with emotional pain.

According to the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism, as many as 28% of people with chronic pain turn to alcohol to alleviate their suffering.

Another study from 2009 found that about 25% of patients self-medicated with alcohol for tooth pain, jaw pain or arthritis pain.

There is no documented increase in alcohol use by chronic pain patients at this time, although I would hope there are studies in process that further clarify the question and problems arising from it -- especially with opioid pain medication being reined in and so many patients left with nothing to relieve their pain.

There are many reasons why a person may self-medicate with alcohol.

“People have been using alcohol to help cope with chronic pain for many years. Many people also may use alcohol as a way to manage stress, and chronic pain often can be a significant stressor,” Jonas Bromberg, PsyD, wrote in PainAction.

“One theory about why alcohol may be used to manage chronic pain is because it affects the central nervous system in a way that may result in a mild amount of pain reduction. However, medical experts are quick to point out that alcohol has no direct pain-relieving value, even if the short-term affects provide some amount of temporary relief. In fact, using alcohol as a way to relieve pain can cause significant problems, especially in cases of excessive use, or when it is used with pain medication.”

Constant, unrelenting pain is definitely a stressor -- that's putting it mildly -- but I’ve never added alcohol to my pain medication regimen. I was always afraid of the possible deadly side effects, coupled with the fact my mother was an alcoholic who mixed her medication with it. That's a path I have chosen not to go down.

Bromberg also tells us that men may be more likely to use alcohol for pain relief than women, and people with higher income also tend to use alcohol more to treat their chronic pain.

Interestingly, the use of alcohol is usually not related to how intense a person’s pain is or how long they’ve had it. It was the regularity of pain symptoms – chronic pain -- that seemed most related to alcohol use, according to Bromberg.

Those who self-medicate with alcohol for physical or emotional pain often use it with a variety of substances, both legal and illegal.

Researchers at Boston University School of Medicine and Boston Medical Center reported last year in the Journal of General Internal Medicine that in a study of nearly 600 patients who screened positive for illicit drugs, nearly 90 percent had chronic pain. Over half of them used marijuana, cocaine or heroin, and about half reported heavy drinking.

“It was common for patients to attribute their substance use to treating symptoms of pain,” the researchers reported. “Among those with any recent heavy alcohol use, over one-third drank to treat their pain, compared to over three-quarters of those who met the criteria for current high-risk alcohol use.”

“Substance use” (not abuse) was defined as use of illegal drugs, misuse of prescription drugs, or high risk alcohol use. I had not heard of this term before, it’s usually called substance abuse.  Perhaps these researchers were onto something really important that needs further study, particularly with opioid medication under fire.

“While the association between chronic pain and drug addiction has been observed in prior studies, this study goes one step further to quantify how many of these patient are using these substances specifically to treat chronic pain," they added.

What this information shows is that if one is on pain medication, using alcohol or an illegal substance does not make one unique. It is certainly not safe, but it does occur. We are all struggling to find ways to cope with chronic pain, and if someone is denied one substance they are at high risk of turning to another.

Rochelle Odell lives in California. She’s lived for nearly 25 years with Complex Regional Pain Syndrome (CRPS/RSD).

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.

FDA to Review All Abuse Deterrent Opioids

By Pat Anson, Editor

A week after asking that Opana ER be taken off the market, the head of the Food and Drug Administration has ordered a review of all opioid painkillers with abuse deterrent formulas to see if they actually help prevent opioid abuse and addiction.

The move is likely to add to speculation that the FDA may seek to prevent the sale of other opioid painkillers.

“We are announcing a public meeting that seeks a discussion on a central question related to opioid medications with abuse-deterrent properties: do we have the right information to determine whether these products are having their intended impact on limiting abuse and helping to curb the epidemic?” FDA commissioner Scott Gottlieb, MD, said in a statement.

Gottlieb said the FDA would meet with “external thought leaders” on July 10th and 11th to assess abuse deterrent formulas, which usually make medications harder for addicts to crush or liquefy for snorting and injecting. He did not identify who the thought leaders were.

“Opioid formulations with properties designed to deter abuse are not abuse-proof or addiction-proof. These drugs can still be abused, particularly orally, and their use can still lead to new addiction,” Gottlieb said. “Nonetheless, these new formulations may hold promise as one part of a broad effort to reduce the rates of misuse and abuse. One thing is clear: we need better scientific information to understand how to optimize our assessment of abuse deterrent formulations.”

In a surprise move last week, the FDA asked Endo Pharmaceuticals to remove Opana ER from the market, citing concerns that the oxymorphone tablets are being liquefied and injected. It’s the first time the agency has taken steps to stop an opioid painkiller from being sold.

“I am pleased, but not because I think that this one move by itself will have much impact,” Andrew Kolodny, MD, Executive Director of Physicians for Responsible Opioid Prescribing (PROP) told Mother Jones. “I’m hopeful that this signals a change at FDA—and that Opana might be just the first opioid that they’ll consider taking off the market. It’s too soon to tell.”

Opana was reformulated by Endo in 2012 to make it harder to abuse, but addicts quickly discovered they could still inject it. The FDA said Opana was linked to serious outbreaks of HIV, Hepatitis C and a blood clotting disorder spread by infected needles.

Endo has yet to respond to the FDA request. If the company refuses to stop selling Opana, the agency said it would take steps to require its removal from the market by withdrawing approval.

“The request to voluntarily remove the product is one thing, but it comes with a lot of other questions that are unanswered,” Endo CEO Paul Campanelli reportedly said at an industry conference covered by Bloomberg. “We are attempting to communicate with the FDA to find out what they would like us to do.”

Patient advocates say it would be unfair to remove an effective pain medication from the market just because it is being abused by addicts.

“The FDA is following a political agenda, rather than its mandate to protect the public health,” said Janice Reynolds, a retired oncology nurse who suffers from persistent pain. “Depriving those who benefit from the use of Opana ER to stop people from using it illegally is ethically and morally wrong.”

Sales of Opana reached nearly $160 million last year. The painkiller is prescribed about 50,000 times a month.

"This is something that could potentially apply to other drugs in the future, as it may signal a movement by the FDA to start taking products off the market that don't have strong abuse-deterrent properties," industry analyst Scott Lassman told

The FDA put drug makers on notice four years ago that they should speed up the development of abuse deterrent formulas (ADF).  Acting on the FDA's guidance, pharmaceutical companies spent hundreds of millions of dollars developing several new opioid painkillers that are harder to chew, crush, snort or inject.

Were they worth the investment? Not according to a recent study funded by insurers, pharmacy benefit managers and some drug makers.

The Institute for Clinical and Economic Review (ICER), a non-profit that recommends which medications should be covered by insurance and at what price, released a report last month that gave ADF opioids a lukewarm grade when it comes to preventing abuse.

“Without stronger real-world evidence that ADFs reduce the risk of abuse and addiction among newly prescribed patients, our judgment is that the evidence can only demonstrate a ‘comparable or better’ net health benefit (C+),” the ICER report states.

The insurance industry has been reluctant to pay for ADF opioids, not because of any lack of effectiveness in preventing abuse, but because of their cost. A branded ADF opioid like OxyContin can cost nearly twice as much as a generic opioid without an abuse deterrent formula.  According to one study, OxyContin was covered by only a third of Medicare Part D plans in 2015. Many insurers also require prior authorization before an OxyContin prescription is filled.