‘Abuse-Resistant’ Oxycontin Driving Addicts To Heroin

By Amir Khan on July 12, 2012 11:04 AM EDT

Oxycontin
An abuse-resistant form of the common, powerful painkiller Oxycontin may be having an unintended effect (Photo: Creative Commons)

An abuse-resistant form of the common, powerful painkiller Oxycontin may be having an unintended effect, according to a new study, published Wednesday in the New England Journal of Medicine. Researchers found that as the painkiller becomes harder to abuse, more and more addicts are turning to heroin to achieve the sought-after high.

The initial formulation of Oxycontin was designed to release slowly in the body over the course of many hours. However, addicts found that they could easily crush, snort or inject the pills for a quick high. In 2010, Purdue Pharma, which manufactures the drug, released an "abuse-resistant" form of the drug, which makes it more difficult to crush and slower to dissolve, making it less attractive to addicts.

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Researchers surveyed more than 2,500 patients and found that while many people have stopped abusing Oxycontin, many have moved onto harder drugs, such as heroin.

"There has been a reduction in the abuse of Oxycontin, which was, of course, the predicted effect," Theodore Cicero,study coauthor and psychiatry professor at Washington University in St. Louis, told HealthDay. "We had some hypotheses that drug abusers would shift to [another opioid], but we didn't anticipate what would occur with heroin."

The number of people who reported using Oxycontin as their primary drug fell from 35.6 percent to 12.8 percent after the new formula was introduced. And while the number of people who reported using Oxycontin to get high at least once in the previous 30 days dropped from 47.7 percent to 30 percent, the number of people who reported using heroin nearly doubled.

"The use of OxyContin has dropped precipitously, but none of us anticipated that people who were addicted to oxycodone would leave it and select another drug to take its place," Cicero told Fox News. "The thing about drug abuse is it's like a big balloon - when you poke it in one place, it pushes out somewhere else."

Cicero said the findings show that it may not be enough to deter addicts from abusing prescription drugs.

"Abuse-deterrent formulations may not be the 'magic bullets' that many hoped they would be in solving the growing problem of opioid abuse,"  the researchers wrote in the study.

Dr. Edward Michna, a pain expert at Brigham and Women's Hospital in Boston, who was not involved in the study, told Reuters that it's now clear that the specific drug doesn't matter - addicts will always chase the high.

"The problem is substance abuse. It's not the drug. It's not the formulation," he said. "I think our energy should be dedicated toward the disease of addiction, educating physicians on the disease of addiction, focusing more money on research and treatments rather than putting money into expensive formulations that probably won't achieve much."

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