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Maker Halts Some Shipments of Painkiller

Abuse concerns leave largest dose of OxyContin on hold

FRIDAY, May 11 (HealthScout) -- The maker of a painkiller increasingly popular with recreational drug users has suspended shipments of the largest dose of the time-release pill, which delivers a potentially deadly high when crushed.

Purdue Pharma of Stamford, Conn., says it will temporarily stop distributing 160-milligram tablets of the drug OxyContin, while it investigates whether the large pills are being selectively abused. OxyContin is a prescription drug intended for cancer patients and those with other ongoing conditions.

James Heins, a spokesman for Purdue Pharma, says the suspension was voluntary and prompted by reports of seizures of the 160-mg tablets. "Abuse of that dosage is extremely dangerous and could have serious or even fatal" consequences, says Heins. The 160-mg pills, he adds, are meant for patients who require at least 320-mg of the drug daily, which is about 1 percent of the market for the medication.

OxyContin abuse has reportedly been linked to at least 120 deaths, though Heins says he doesn't know how many of those, if any, are overdoses involving the large tablets.

Purdue Pharma, which co-markets OxyContin with Abbott Laboratories, has been criticized for aggressively pushing the drug while downplaying its potential for abuse. The company claims the risk of harm is greatest when users combine the painkiller with alcohol or other drugs.

Heins says the company is spending "millions" of dollars researching new painkillers that will be "safe and effective for pain control but will be unattractive to abusers."

Illegal use of OxyContin was first reported in Maine about 18 months ago but has since spread south, officials say. Law enforcement agencies have been staging bust operations to quash the problem. And recently, shipments of the drug destined for illicit users have been traced to Mexico and possibly even Canada, officials say.

The U.S. Drug Enforcement Agency says it now has a classified "action plan" to attack the criminal use and distribution of the painkiller. The initiative is a mix of enforcement, intelligence gathering and outreach efforts to educate the public about the addictive potential of OxyContin, which the DEA considers similar to heroin, says Rogene Waite, a spokeswoman for the agency.

"It's one of the [drugs] that we're extremely concerned with," says Waite. At the same time, however, narcotics officials say they're sensitive to the needs of patients who take OxyContin legitimately.

"We realize that there is a very legitimate market and the medical use has to be assured for that market," says Waite, who adds that the agency hasn't considered calling for a ban on the medication.

OxyContin is designed as a slow-release pill that provides several hours of sustained pain relief. But when the pill is crushed, swallowing, snorting or injecting it can trigger an intense euphoric high. Its active ingredient, oxycodone hydrochloride, is an opioid also found in 40 other potent painkillers, including Tylox and Percocet.

Although illegal use of OxyContin was first reported in Maine nearly two years ago, drug officials say the problem has spread across the country. The drug first came on the market in 1996.

Kentucky officials last winter arrested more than 200 people suspected of being involved in the illegal distribution of OxyContin, and said the drug had been implicated in almost 60 deaths.

Cincinnati police report that between January and October of last year they stopped the illicit distribution of more than 9,000 doses of OxyContin, arresting 22 people. And police in Gilbert, W.Va., call the drug the worst they've ever dealt with, according to the National Drug Intelligence Center, which in January issued an advisory on the drug and similar products.

Many people illegally obtain OxyContin by "doctor shopping," going from physician to physician for prescriptions. Other forms of diversion include stealing from pharmacies and writing phony orders for the pills.

OxyContin will continue to be available in tablets ranging from 10 mg to 80 mg. The street price of the drug ranges from $5 to $10 for a 10-mg tablet -- roughly four to eight the price of retail -- to $80 and up for the 80-mg version, which sells in pharmacies for $6, officials say.

Unlike heroin and other street drugs, many people obtain OxyContin for free, since health insurers frequently cover the medication. However, the pills have been the target of numerous heists, and some pharmacies have stopped stocking them, drug officials say.

Web sites have sprung up with buyers and peddlers in search of each other, but also with the testimonials of users lamenting their experience with the drug. On DrugAbuse.com, one self-described addict says she had a $50,000-a-year habit on OxyContin, which she'd begun taking illegally for chronic back pain.

What To Do

For more on OxyContin abuse, try the National Drug Intelligence Center, the Partnership for a Drug-Free America, or the National Association of Drug Diversion Investigators.

For more on cancer pain, try the American Alliance of Cancer Pain Initiatives.

Read other HealthScout articles about drug abuse.

SOURCES: Interviews with James Heins, spokesman, Purdue Pharma, Stamford, Conn.; Rogene Waite, spokeswoman, U.S. Drug Enforcement Agency, Washington, D.C.; National Drug Intelligence Center
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