Tue, Aug 21, 2007 - Page 16 News List

Americans living in a world of pain turn to medications

The abuse of painkillers is a growing trend in the US; many people are obtaining prescription drugs illegally so the government is cracking down on doctors


Retired US Marine Staff Sergeant James Fernandez, 54, of Fredericksburg, Virginnia, holds a tray containing part of the daily prescription medicines he uses to overcome his severe pain.


People in the US are living in a world of pain and they are popping pills at an alarming rate to cope with it.

The amount of five major prescription painkillers sold at retail establishments rose 88 percent between 1997 and 2005, according to an Associated Press analysis of statistics from the Drug Enforcement Administration.

More than 90,720kg of codeine, morphine, oxycodone, hydrocodone and meperidine were purchased at retail stores during the most recent year represented in the data. That total is enough to give more than 300mg of painkillers to every person in America.

Oxycodone, the chemical used in OxyContin, is responsible for most of the increase. Oxycodone use jumped nearly six-fold between 1997 and 2005. The drug gained notoriety as "hillbilly heroin,'' often bought and sold illegally in Appalachia.

An AP investigation found these reasons for the increase:

* The population is getting older. As age increases, so does the need for pain medications. In 2000, there were 35 million people older than 65. By 2020, the Census Bureau estimates the number of elderly in the US will reach 54 million.

* Drug makers have embarked on unprecedented marketing campaigns.

* Spending on drug marketing has gone from US$11 billion in 1997 to nearly US$30 billion in 2005, congressional investigators found. Profit margins among the leading companies routinely have been three and four times higher than in other Fortune 500 industries.

* A major change in pain management philosophy is now in its third decade. Doctors who once advised patients that pain is part of the healing process began reversing course in the early 1980s; most now see pain management as an important ingredient in overcoming illness.

Retired Staff Sergeant James Fernandez, 54, of Fredericksburg, Virginia, survived two helicopter crashes and Gulf War Syndrome over 20 years in the Marine Corps. He remains disabled from his service-related injuries and takes the equivalent of nine painkillers containing oxycodone every day.

"It's made a difference,'' he said. "I still have bad days, but it's under control.''

Such stories should hearten longtime advocates of wider painkiller use, such as Russell Portenoy, head of New York's Beth Israel pain management department. But they have not.

"I'm concerned and many people are concerned,'' he said, "that the pendulum is swinging too far back.''

Consider: More people are abusing prescription painkillers because the medications are more available. The vast majority of people with prescriptions use the drugs safely. But the number of emergency room visits from painkiller abuse has increased more than 160 percent since 1995, according to the government.

Perhaps no place illustrates the trends and consequences for the world of pain better than Myrtle Beach, South Carolina, a sprawling community of strip malls, hotels and bars perched along a 100km strip of sand on the Atlantic Ocean. The metro area, which includes three counties, is home to 350,000 people but sees more than 14 million tourists annually, drawn to its warm water, golf courses and shopping.

During the eight-year period reflected in government figures, oxycodone distribution increased 800 percent in the area of Myrtle Beach, partly due to a campaign by Purdue Pharmaceuticals. The privately held company has pleaded guilty to lying to patients, physicians and federal regulators about the addictive nature of their drug.

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