Are Rx Opioids Scapegoats for the Opioid Crisis?

By Dr. Lynn Webster, PNN Columnist

The Washington Post recently published a series of stories about the volume of opioid medication distributed over the past several years in the United States. Over 76 billion pills were distributed from 2002 through 2012.

That sounds like a huge amount, but it is difficult to know what the number means. What is clear is that the stories are meant to suggest the number of pills is excessive and responsible for the rise in opioid overdose deaths. 

This presumed correlation is one reason for the recent lawsuits that have been filed against opioid manufacturers and distributors. It has also spawned policies that appear to have worsened, not prevented, overdoses.

Though the situation has been framed largely as a prescribing problem, the reasons for the drug crisis are many. While overprescribing has certainly been a factor, it is probably less important than other factors, such as joblessness, homelessness and despair, which are more challenging to address.

Let’s look at the data about the relationship between opioid prescriptions and overdose death rates. The number of opioid prescriptions in the United States peaked in 2012 and began a steady decline. By 2017, they reached a 15-year low.

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Despite the decline in the number of opioids prescribed, overdoses from all opioids – both legal and illegal -- continued to increase. Overdoses involving prescription opioids represent only about 25% of the total number of drug overdoses.  

Obviously, something more than the supply of prescription opioids is driving overdoses higher.

No Correlation Between Opioid Prescriptions and Overdoses

After winning a year-long court battle with the Justice Department, the Post and HD Media, publisher of the Charleston Gazette-Mail in West Virginia, were able to access data from the DEA’s Automation of Reports and Consolidated Orders System (ARCOS).

The information in the database shows that, between 2006 and 2012, West Virginia received the largest per capita amount of prescription opioids. The state also experienced the highest opioid-related death rate during that period. Is there a correlation?

Kentucky also had a high number of pills and a high death rate, but as Jacob Sullum recently reported in Reason, Kentucky’s death rate in 2017 was actually lower than Maryland’s and Utah’s, where prescription rates are substantially lower. He also pointed out that although Oregon’s prescription rate was among the highest in the country, the rate of deaths involving pain pills in Oregon was just 3.5 per 100,000, lower than the rates in most states. 

Sullum further showed that Kentucky, Nevada, Oklahoma, Oregon, South Carolina and Tennessee were among the 10 states with the highest per capita prescribed pills during the 2006-2012 period. But they were not the states with the highest overdose rates. 

In a separate analysis, the CDC and Agency for Healthcare Research Quality found no correlation -- not even a weak one -- between opioid prescribing rates and overdoses when comparing data from each state. 

In addition, the rate of opioid prescribing is highest nationally for people 55 years and older, but that age group has the lowest rate.  

This lack of correlation between opioid overdoses and the volume of prescribed opioids is consistent internationally. In 2016, England prescribed the most opioids and saw the most overdose deaths in its history. However, the drug responsible for many of those deaths was heroin, not prescription opioids. 

There is a raging opioid crisis in West Africa where, despite a low prescription rate, the number of overdoses has surged

In 2018, Scotland's drug overdose rate exceeded that of the United States -- largely because of heroin. There is no evidence of an overall increase in opioid prescribing in Scotland. 

No Simple Answers to the Opioid Crisis

It is clear that the data does not support a simple answer to the opioid crisis. Focusing all of our efforts on decreasing the supply of prescriptions will not solve the problem and is already creating unintended consequences.

In fact, cocaine and methamphetamine were involved in more overdose deaths in the U.S. in 2018 than prescription opioids. As the supply of prescription opioids has decreased due to the policies of the last few years, people have moved from prescription opioids to other illicit drugs.

The solution to the opioid crisis must be multi-pronged. Overprescribing played a role in causing the crisis, but sociological factors appear to have driven the demand. We must consider what prompts people to turn to drugs in despair. A recent study published in SSM-Population shows job loss bears a significant correlation to opioid-caused deaths.

In addition, in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, Princeton University economists Anne Case and Angus Deaton (recipient of the 2015 Nobel prize in economics) showed mortality from substance use was linked to declining economic opportunity and financial insecurity.

Solving the drug crisis will not be easy. However, the disenfranchised members of our most impoverished communities deserve viable solutions to their problems. It is crucial to understand the degree to which job loss and hopelessness contribute to the drug problem.

Reputable data proves that the volume of opioids prescribed is not solely, or even primarily, responsible for the opioid crisis. Let’s focus on what is responsible.

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Lynn R. Webster, MD, is a vice president of scientific affairs for PRA Health Sciences and consults with the pharmaceutical industry. He is author of the award-winning book, “The Painful Truth” and co-producer of the documentary, “It Hurts Until You Die.”

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.

Lessons from the Opioid Database

By Roger Chriss, PNN Columnist

Last month The Washington Post made public for the first time a DEA database of opioid prescribing that shows “the path of every single pain pill” sold in the United States from 2006 to 2012.

The Post’s analysis showed that 76 billion pills flowed through the country and nearly 100,000 fatal overdoses occurred over a seven-year period.

Biospace explained that opioid manufacturers, distributors and retailers “allowed the drugs to reach the streets of communities large and small, despite persistent red flags that those pills were being sold in apparent violation of federal law and diverted to the black market.”

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The first lesson from the database seems obvious. Too many pills were prescribed, with opioid manufacturers, distributors and retailers failing to report suspicious orders and government agencies failing to oversee the prescription opioid supply.

“If you don’t start millions of opioid-naive people on opioids they don’t need, it translates … in the longer term into fewer overdoses,” Stanford psychiatry professor Keith Humphreys told the Post.

But this misses a key lesson. Although no drug should ever be used when it is not needed, this leaves open the obvious and essential question: How do we reduce risks in people who do need opioids?

We cannot ban opioids completely without returning to pre-Civil War medicine. But each year we have millions of car crashes, severe battlefield and workplace injuries, new cases of cancer, major surgeries and devastating long-term illness.

In the many commentaries on the opioid database, little has been said about improving prescribing safety. We need better ways to use opioids safely because sometimes we just don’t have any other option.

If it is true, as Julie Croft, an Oklahoma addiction treatment provider wrote, “We are all just one accident away from becoming addicted to painkillers” -- then we had better rapidly improve how we use opioids or come up with better alternatives since we have millions of accidents annually.

To this end, Yale and the Mayo Clinic were recently awarded a $5.3 million FDA grant to study patients with acute pain and their use of opioids.

Reduced Prescribing May Not Be Enough

The next lesson in the database is vulnerability to substance abuse. Dennis Scanlon, PhD, and Christopher S. Hollenbeak, PhD, note in the American Journal of Managed Care, that “although using government or regulatory mechanisms to prevent or significantly curb the supply of addictive narcotics is certainly valuable, there is also value in preventing or reducing addiction at its core.”

In other words, policies that reduce opioid prescribing may be helpful, but they may also not be enough. We need better tools and greater understanding of opioid prescribing. The National Institute of Drug Abuse currently estimates that 8% of people on long-term opioid therapy develop some form of opioid use disorder, while The BMJ estimates that less than 1% of surgical patients receiving opioids face a similar fate. These numbers may seem low, but every effort should be made to reduce them.

As bioethicist Travis Reider states in his book “In Pain” about his personal struggle with opioids: “The bottom line is that we are not, by and large, acting decisively in an evidence-based way to tackle the myriad problems raised by opioids. Although we don’t know everything about how to turn the corner on this crisis, we know a lot, and we’re simply not doing it.”

The last essential lesson from the opioid database is that opioid abuse and addiction came long before the crisis. The clichéd response that we “cannot arrest our way” out of the crisis needs to be extended to we “cannot simply restrict our way out” either. We need better prevention and early intervention for opioid use disorder, and improved management of the opioid supply chain so as to prevent theft and diversion.

The crisis is a fast-moving target, with prescription opioid levels having dropped significantly since 2012. Overdoses involving prescription opioids have also fallen, while deaths linked to illicit opioids like fentanyl, cocaine and methamphetamine are rising sharply. We will need far more than a prescribing database to guide policy moving forward.

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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.

The Prescription Opioid Crisis Is Over

By Roger Chriss, PNN Columnist

In a very real sense, the prescription opioid crisis is over. But it didn’t end and we didn’t win. Instead, it has evolved into a broader drug overdose crisis. Opioids are still a factor, but so is almost every other class of drug, whether prescribed or sourced on the street.

The main players in the crisis now are illicit fentanyl, cocaine and methamphetamine. The vast majority of fatal overdoses include a mixture of these drugs, with alcohol and cannabis often present, and assigning any one as the sole cause of death is becoming tricky.

Connecticut Magazine recently reported on rising fentanyl overdoses in that state. According to the Office of the Chief Medical Examiner, fentanyl deaths in Connecticut spiked from 14 in 2012 to 760 in 2018. Fentanyl was involved in 75% of all overdoses last year, often in combination with other drugs

Meanwhile, overdoses involving the most widely prescribed opioid — oxycodone — fell to just 62 deaths, the lowest in years. Only about 6% of the overdoses in Connecticut were linked to oxycodone.

Similar trends can be seen nationwide, mostly east of the Mississippi. Opioids still play a major role in drug deaths, with the CDC reporting that about 68% of 70,200 drug overdose deaths in 2017 involving an opioid. But more than half of these deaths involved fentanyl and other synthetic opioids obtained on the black market.

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According to the National Institute on Drug Abuse, overdoses involving prescription opioids or heroin have plateaued, while overdoses involving methamphetamine, cocaine and benzodiazepines have risen sharply.

In other words, deaths attributable to prescription opioids alone are in decline. Deaths attributable to fentanyl are spiking, and deaths involving most other drug class are rising rapidly. The CDC estimates that there are now more overdoses involving cocaine than prescription opioids or heroin.

Moreover, the crisis is evolving fast. At the American College of Medical Toxicology’s 2019 annual meeting, featured speaker Keith Humphreys, PhD, remarked that “Fentanyl was invented in the sixties. To get to 10,000 deaths took 50 years. To get to 20,000 took 12 months.”

In fact, provisional estimates from the CDC for 2018 suggest we have reached 30,000 fentanyl deaths. And state-level data show few signs of improvements for 2019.

Worryingly, methamphetamine use is resurgent. And cocaine is “making a deadly return.”  Illicit drugs are also being mixed together in novel ways, with “fentanyl speedballs” – a mixture of fentanyl with cocaine or meth – being one example.

Drug Strategies ‘Need to Evolve’

The over-emphasis on prescription opioids in the overdose crisis has led to an under-appreciation of these broader drug trends. Researchers are seeing a need for this to change.

“The rise in deaths involving cocaine and psychostimulants and the continuing evolution of the drug landscape indicate a need for a rapid, multifaceted, and broad approach that includes more timely and comprehensive surveillance efforts to inform tailored and effective prevention and response strategies,” CDC researchers reported last week. “Because some stimulant deaths are also increasing without opioid co-involvement, prevention and response strategies need to evolve accordingly.”   

It is now common to hear about the “biopsychosocial” model for treating chronic pain – understanding the complex interaction between human biology, psychology and social factors. This same model has a lot to offer substance use and drug policy.

Substance use and addiction involve a complex interplay of genetic and epigenetic factors combined with social and cultural determinants. Treatment must be more than just saying no or interdicting suppliers. At present, medication-assisted therapy for opioid use disorder remains hard to access. And other forms of addiction have no known pharmacological treatment.

Addressing the drug overdose crisis will require not only more and better treatment but also increased efforts at harm reduction, decriminalization of drug use, improvements in healthcare, and better public health surveillance and epidemiological monitoring. Further, the underlying social and cultural factors that make American culture so vulnerable to addiction must be addressed.

None of this is going to be easy. Current efforts are misdirected, making America feel helpless and look hapless. Novel and possibly disruptive options may prove useful, from treating addiction with psychedelics to reducing risks of drug use through safe injection sites and clean needle exchanges.

We are long past the prescription opioid phase of the crisis, and are now in what is variously being called a “stimulant phase” and a “poly-drug phase.” Recognition of the shape of the drug overdose crisis is an essential first step toward changing its grim trajectory.

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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.

Biden: ‘A Little Pain Is Not Bad’

By Pat Anson, PNN Editor

Former Vice-President Joe Biden, who appears close to announcing a run for president in 2020, may want to think twice about the message he’s sending to a large group of voters: chronic pain patients.

While speaking Thursday as part of a panel on the opioid crisis at the University of Pennsylvania, Biden said too many doctors “willy-nilly overprescribed” opioid pain relievers.

"A little pain is not bad," said Biden. “A lot of people can get addicted within five days.”

FORMER VICE-PRESIDENT JOE BIDEN

FORMER VICE-PRESIDENT JOE BIDEN

“We got here, I believe in part, because of the greed of the drug companies and the irresponsibility of them and, quite frankly, a lack of sufficient responsibility on the part of the medical profession,“ Biden said, adding that 215 million prescriptions for opioids were written in 2016.

“We desperately need people with chronic pain to have this access, but you cannot convince me anywhere near that is the case,” he said.

The 76-year old former senator also expressed regret about being a co-sponsor of the 1988 Anti-Drug Abuse Act, which created tougher sentencing guidelines for crack cocaine. Critics say the law sent a disproportionate share of African-Americans and other minorities to prison.

"The big mistake was us buying into the idea that crack cocaine was different from the powder cocaine, and having penalties ... it should be eliminated," Biden said, according to Delaware Online. “I’m sorry I didn’t know more about behavior.”

Biden’s knowledge about the opioid crisis appears dated. The vast majority of overdose deaths are now attributed to illicit fentanyl, heroin and other black market opioids, not pain medication. The number of opioid prescriptions has also been declining for several years and now stand at their lowest level since 2003.

Prescription opioids are not particularly risky if used responsibly, according to a recent study of over half a million Medicare patients who were prescribed the drugs. Over 90 percent had a negligible risk of an overdose. Even among “high risk” patients on high opioid doses, the risk of an overdose is less than two percent.  

A major review of studies on long term opioid therapy found that only 0.27% of patients were at risk of opioid addiction, abuse or other serious side effects. In another large study, The British Medical Journal reported that only 3% of opioid naïve patients (new to opioids) continued to use the drugs 90 days after a major elective surgery.

Biden’s advice to pain sufferers that “a little pain is not bad,” is reminiscent of a statement by former Attorney General Jeff Sessions, who told a Florida audience in 2018 that "people need to take some aspirin sometimes and tough it out.”

You can watch the opioid panel discussion on YouTube by clicking here.

An Open Letter to the CDC Center for Injury Prevention

By Richard “Red” Lawhern, Guest Columnist

Dear Dr. Robert Redfield and Dr. Debra Houry,

By its passive refusal to conduct a thorough review of the impact and outcomes of its 2016 opioid prescribing guideline, the CDC’s National Center for Injury Prevention and Control is actively causing harm to hundreds of thousands of pain patients.   

Deserted by their doctors in a hostile regulatory environment, many are going into the streets seeking pain relief.  Possibly hundreds may already be dead of illegal fentanyl poisoning or suicide.  Military veterans, in particular, face draconian restrictions on the availability of safe and effective opioid medication therapy.   

And all for no good reason!

I suggest with every intention of professional and personal courtesy, that government organizations can no longer stand aside from this centrally important issue.  Such a stance will make you and other federal agencies accessories to state-sanctioned torture and negligent homicide.  That is unacceptable.   

As a former military officer, I respect a well-tried motto that I urge each of our regulators to take on as their own:   

      Lead, follow, or get out of the way! 

It has become clear that the CDC guideline must be immediately withdrawn for a major rewrite.  In its present form, the guideline is unjustifiably biased against opioid pain relievers, factually incomplete, in error on basic science, and founded on untested assumptions that do not hold up under any degree of careful scrutiny.   

The guideline is directly responsible for a vast regulatory over-reach by DEA and state authorities that is driving doctors out of pain management and denying safe and effective pain treatment for hundreds of thousands of patients.  

The CDC guideline has been publicly repudiated by no less an authority than the American Medical Association. Over 300 medical professionals have called for a rewrite of the guideline from the ground up. And a recent draft report by a federal task force calls for a reorientation of the guideline towards individualized patient-centered care, not the one-size-fits-all approach of the CDC. 

Multiple published papers have conclusively invalidated the guideline’s contention that there is a maximum dose threshold of risk for opioid addiction and overdose.   

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Likewise, contrary to assertions in the guideline, there are presently no validated long-term studies to support the use of non-opioid analgesics and NSAIDs, or the off-label prescribing of anti-seizure and anti-depressant drugs to treat pain. No Phase II or Phase III trials have been published on "alternative" techniques such as acupuncture, massage or meditation.  And there are no trials which directly compare these techniques to opioid therapy under documented protocols.  Alternative treatments can at best be regarded as adjuncts to be added to analgesic or anti-inflammatory treatment.  

Published papers also demonstrate that criteria used by CDC and other federal agencies to identify risk of opioid abuse or overdose have very limited predictive accuracy. These faulty criteria are now being used by Prescription Drug Monitoring Programs (PDMP’s) to "flag" patients presumed to be at risk, who are in fact not at risk but are being denied pain treatment due to false alarms.  

Opioids, Overdoses and Demographics 

We can now take this narrative a step further.  I have compiled overdose data directly from the CDC Wonder database and from the Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality Data. This data focuses specifically on deaths directly attributable to opioid-related overdoses or suicide. The chart below shows rates of mortality by age group from 1999 to 2017.

GRAPHICS BY RED LAWHERN

GRAPHICS BY RED LAWHERN

Note that the highest rates of opioid-related mortality are among youth and young adults, while the lowest rates are among people over age 55.  Moreover, mortality in youth has skyrocketed by 1,800% over 17 years, while remaining relatively stable in people 55 and older.

The chart below documents the contrast in opioid prescribing by age group in 2016.  Unsurprisingly, older adults and seniors are much more likely to experience chronic pain and are prescribed opioids at a rate nearly double that of young adults. These two demographic trends contradict the idea that opioid overdoses are linked to prescribing.  They’re not and the evidence proves it. 

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An updated analysis report further summarizes major themes we found in the overdose data.  The report reveals that “over-prescribing” of medical opioids was never a significant driver in opioid overdoses. There is no cause-and-effect relationship between rates of opioid prescribing versus rates of opioid overdose. In fact, it can be argued that in states where prescribing rates are highest, the trend may be in the opposite direction. 

The downward sloping red line in the chart below is called a "regression" line.  This is the trend line for the overdose and prescribing data from all 50 states in 2016. If there were a connection between high rates of opioid prescribing and overdoses, we’d expect the regression line to be pointing upward, not downward.

Overdose mortality rates are actually lower in high-prescribing states! 

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One plausible explanation for the downward sloping line is that in states where prescribing has been more suppressed, patients are being driven into unsafe street markets or are committing suicide when overwhelmed by pain.   

These findings have previously been published in the blog of Dr. Lynn Webster, former President of the American Academy of Pain Medicine and author of "The Painful Truth." 

The implications of this analysis are glaring: the National Center for Injury Prevention and Control has created a fatally flawed guideline which actively increases injury rather than reducing it.   

Taken in sum, the evidence reveals that key assumptions on which the CDC guideline is based are simply and conclusively wrong.  Continued refusal to reevaluate the guideline is morally, ethically, medically and legally wrong. The 2016 CDC guideline on opioids must be retracted.  NOW! 

(Editor’s note: Dr. Redfield is CDC Director and Dr. Houry is Director of the CDC National Center for Injury Prevention and Control. A longer version of this open letter has been sent by email to other federal agencies and officials.)

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Richard “Red” Lawhern, PhD, has for over 20 years volunteered as a patient advocate in online pain communities and a subject matter expert on public policy for medical opioids.  Red is co-founder and Director of Research for The Alliance for the Treatment of Intractable Pain.

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.

Illicit Fentanyl Deaths Rising at ‘Exponential Rate’

By Martha Bebinger, Kaiser Health News

Men are dying after opioid overdoses at nearly three times the rate of women in the United States. Overdose deaths are increasing faster among black and Latino Americans than among whites. And there’s an especially steep rise in the number of young adults ages 25 to 34 whose death certificates include some version of the drug fentanyl.

These findings, published in a new report by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, highlight the start of the third wave of the nation’s opioid epidemic. The first was prescription pain medications, such as OxyContin; then heroin, which replaced pills when they became too expensive; and now illicit fentanyl, which is often mixed with heroin or used in the production of counterfeit pills

Fentanyl is a powerful synthetic opioid that can shut down breathing in less than a minute, and its popularity in the U.S. began to surge at the end of 2013. For each of the next three years, fatal overdoses involving fentanyl doubled, “rising at an exponential rate,” said Merianne Rose Spencer, a statistician at the CDC and one of the study’s authors.

Spencer’s research shows a 113 percent average annual increase from 2013 to 2016 (when adjusted for age). That total was first reported in late 2018, but Spencer looked deeper with this report into the demographic characteristics of those people dying from fentanyl overdoses.

FENTANYL DEATHS BY QUARTER (2011 TO 2016)

FENTANYL DEATHS BY QUARTER (2011 TO 2016)

Increased trafficking of the drug and increased use are both fueling the spike in fentanyl deaths. For drug dealers, fentanyl is easier to produce than some other opioids. Unlike the poppies needed for heroin, which can be spoiled by weather or a bad harvest, fentanyl’s ingredients are easily supplied; it’s a synthetic combination of chemicals, often produced in China and packaged in Mexico, according to the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration. And because fentanyl can be 50 times more powerful than heroin, smaller amounts translate to bigger profits.

Jon DeLena, assistant special agent in charge of the DEA’s New England Field Division, said 1 kilogram of fentanyl, driven across the southern U.S. border, can be mixed with fillers or other drugs to create 6 or 8 kilograms for sale.

“I mean, imagine that business model,” DeLena said. “If you went to any small-business owner and said, ‘Hey, I have a way to make your product eight times the product that you have now,’ there’s a tremendous windfall in there.”

For drug users, fentanyl is more likely to cause an overdose than heroin because it is so potent and because the high fades more quickly than with heroin. Drug users say they inject more frequently with fentanyl because the high doesn’t last as long — and more frequent injecting adds to the risk of overdose.

There are several ways fentanyl can wind up in a dose of some other drug. The mixing may be intentional, as a person seeks a more intense or different kind of high. It may happen as an accidental contamination, as dealers package their fentanyl and other drugs in the same place.

Or dealers may be adding fentanyl to cocaine, meth and counterfeit medication on purpose, in an effort to expand their clientele of users hooked on fentanyl.

“That’s something we have to consider,” said David Kelley, referring to the intentional addition of fentanyl to cocaine, heroin or other drugs by dealers. Kelley is deputy director of the New England High Intensity Drug Trafficking Area. “The fact that we’ve had instances where it’s been present with different drugs leads one to believe that could be a possibility.”

The picture gets more complicated, said Kelley, as dealers develop new forms of fentanyl that are even more deadly. The new CDC report shows dozens of varieties of the drug now on the streets.

The highest rates of fentanyl-involved overdose deaths were found in New England, according to the study, followed by states in the Mid-Atlantic and Upper Midwest. But fentanyl deaths had barely increased in the West — including in Hawaii and Alaska — as of the end of 2016.

Researchers have no firm explanations for these geographic differences, but some experts watching the trends have theories. One is that it’s easier to mix a few white fentanyl crystals into the powdered form of heroin that is more common in Eastern states than into the black-tar heroin that is sold more routinely in the West. Another hypothesis holds that drug cartels used New England as a test market for fentanyl because the region has a strong, long-standing market for opioids.

Spencer, the study’s main author, hopes that some of the other characteristics of the wave of fentanyl highlighted in this report will help shape the public response. Why, for example, did the influx of fentanyl increase the overdose death rate among men to nearly three times the rate of overdose deaths among women?

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Some research points to one factor: Men are more likely to use drugs alone. In the era of fentanyl, that increases a man’s chances of an overdose and death, said Ricky Bluthenthal, a professor of preventive medicine at the University of Southern California’s Keck School of Medicine.

“You have stigma around your drug use, so you hide it,” Bluthenthal said. “You use by yourself in an unsupervised setting. [If] there’s fentanyl in it, then you die.”

Traci Green, deputy director of Boston Medical Center’s Injury Prevention Center, offers some other reasons. Women are more likely to buy and use drugs with a partner, Green said. And women are more likely to call for help — including 911 — and to seek help, including treatment.

“Women go to the doctor more,” she said. “We have health issues that take us to the doctor more. So we have more opportunities to help.”

Green noted that every interaction with a health care provider is a chance to bring someone into treatment. So this finding should encourage more outreach, she said, and encourage health care providers to find more ways to connect with active drug users.

As to why fentanyl seems to be hitting blacks and Latinos disproportionately as compared with whites, Green points to the higher incarceration rates for blacks and Latinos. Those who formerly used opioids heavily face a particularly high risk of overdose when they leave jail or prison and inject fentanyl, she noted; they’ve lost their tolerance to high levels of the drugs.

There are also reports that African-Americans and Latinos are less likely to call 911 because they don’t trust first responders, and medication-based treatment may not be as available to racial minorities. Many Latinos said bilingual treatment programs are hard to find.

CDC researcher Spencer said the deaths attributed to fentanyl in her study should be seen as a minimum number — there are likely more that weren’t counted. Coroners in some states don’t test for the drug or don’t have equipment that can detect one of the dozens of new variations of fentanyl that would appear if sophisticated tests were more widely available.

There are signs the fentanyl surge continues. Kelley, with the New England High Intensity Drug Trafficking Area, notes that fentanyl seizures are rising. And in Massachusetts, one of the hardest-hit areas, state data show fentanyl present in more than 89 percent of fatal overdoses through October 2018.

Still, in one glimmer of hope, even as the number of overdoses in Massachusetts continues to rise, associated deaths dropped 4 percent last year. Many public health specialists attribute the decrease in deaths to the spreading availability of naloxone, a drug that can reverse an opioid overdose.

This story is part of a partnership that includes WBUR, NPR and Kaiser Health News.

Kaiser Health News is a nonprofit news service covering health issues. It is an editorially independent program of the Kaiser Family Foundation, which is not affiliated with Kaiser Permanente.

How Has CDC Opioid Guideline Affected You?

By Lynn Webster, MD, PNN Colomunist

The controversial CDC Guideline for Prescribing Opioids for Chronic Pain was released on March 15, 2016 in an effort to curb the opioid crisis. While “largely supportive” of the guideline at the time, the American Medical Association had concerns about how it would be implemented.

“We remain concerned about the evidence base informing some of the recommendations; conflicts with existing state laws and product labeling; and possible unintended consequences associated with implementation, which includes access and insurance coverage limitations for non-pharmacologic treatments, especially comprehensive care; and the potential effects of strict dosage and duration limits on patient care,” said Patrice Harris, MD, then board chair-elect of the AMA.

Dr. Harris proved to be prescient. In the last three years, insurance companies, healthcare systems and dozens of states have imposed limits – based on the CDC guideline -- on the quantity and dose of opioids dispensed to people with pain.

Oregon has even drafted a plan to stop opioid prescribing for many Medicaid patients and require that they use alternative treatments. Here was my response to Oregon's plan, in which I warned that “forcing opioid tapers is not an appropriate or compassionate solution” and could drive some patients to suicide.

Pharmacies are also imposing limits. In 2017, CVS announced it would limit the number of pills for new patients with acute pain to 7 days’ supply, saying “the CDC Guideline should become the default approach to prescribing opiates.”

That same year, the giant prescription benefits manager Express Scripts also started limiting new opioid prescriptions and set a dosage limit “based on CDC prescribing guidelines.” 

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This January, the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services made it more difficult for over a million Medicare patients to receive doses above 90 MME (morphine milligram equivalent) which they consider a high dose. CMS also imposed a seven-day limit on all patients receiving a new opioid prescription. The CMS rules are based on evidence “cited in the CDC Guideline.”  

‘Revisit This Guideline’

When it first published its recommendations, CDC pledged to “revisit this guideline as new evidence becomes available” and said it was “committed to evaluating the guideline to identify the impact of the recommendations on clinician and patient outcomes, both intended and unintended, and revising the recommendations in future updates when warranted.” 

In a recent statement to PNN, the CDC said there are “several studies underway with external researchers” evaluating the impact of its guideline on opioid prescribing and patient outcomes. The agency also said it recently commissioned a review by Agency for Healthcare Research & Quality (AHRQ) “to determine what new scientific evidence has been released” on the effectiveness of opioid and non-opioid pain relievers.

In the meantime, no revision of the guideline is being planned.    

The CDC guideline was well-intentioned and included many wise principles of opioid prescribing. But it appears to be more about limiting the supply of opioids than improving clinical care for pain patients. Limiting opioid access may be good for some patients, but for many it means more pain and a worsened quality of life.  

There is little evidence that limiting supply reduces opioid addiction and overdoses. Opioid prescribing in the United States has significantly declined since 2012, yet opioid overdoses continue rising – primarily due to illicit fentanyl, heroin and counterfeit drugs, not prescription opioids. The CDC's reevaluation of the guideline should take this into consideration.  

In 2018, the National Institutes of Health’s Interagency Pain Research Coordinating Committee recommended that the CDC "engage with advocates and patients, who have been negatively impacted by the unintended consequences of the CDC guideline." It also called on the FDA and the CDC to work together to "update and improve" the guideline.  

Rather than seeing the CDC guideline as a resource or helpful tool, many prescribers live in fear of it. The DEA now routinely monitors prescription drug databases, looking for “red flags” that indicate a doctor is prescribing opioids at doses above those recommended by the CDC. The AMA last year took a stand against this “inappropriate use” of the guideline, and passed a resolution stating that doctors should not be subject to criminal prosecution or other penalties solely for prescribing opioids at higher dosages.

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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.”

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.