Herald-Whig View

Tide hasn't turned in fight against opioids

Posted: Jul. 17, 2017 12:45 pm

TWO announcements last week from the federal government represent progress in the fight against opioids.

First, the Food and Drug Administration said it will require drug manufacturers to better educate physicians about the painkillers. Then, the Justice Department announced a $35 million settlement with Mallinckrodt Pharmaceuticals, a company charged with looking the other way when it had reason to believe some of its opioids were landing on the black market.

If the tide of the epidemic has not been turned, the battle at least is joined. In addition to the contributions of federal agencies, the states and local governments are becoming increasingly aggressive against drug dealers, manufacturers and the insurance companies that limit treatment for substance abuse.

Ohio and other states have sued drug companies, alleging they fueled the epidemic by underplaying or misrepresenting the drugs' danger, with the assistance of a bipartisan coalition of attorneys general.

Missouri Attorney General Josh Hawley last month filed a civil lawsuit against three of the largest manufacturers of opioids -- Endo Pharmaceuticals, Purdue Pharma, which manufactures OxyContin, and Janssen Pharmaceuticals, which is owned by Johnson & Johnson -- accusing the companies of violating Missouri's consumer protection laws.

The lawsuit states that roughly 500 people in Missouri died from non-heroin opioid overdoses in 2015 alone and that thousands more have to go to the hospital for opioid abuse each year. Data from the Missouri Department of Mental Health shows about 9 out of 100,000 residents died from opioid-related causes in 2014, compared with the national average of about 6 per 100,000.

Pharmaceutical companies should regard the Justice Department's settlement with Mallinckrodt as a shot across the bow. The agreement, described as the first with a manufacturer tied to the opioid crisis, carried more than a stiff financial cost. It requires the company to begin tracking its drugs as they move through the supply chain into the hands of consumers.

That obligation, if required of other manufacturers and suppliers as well, should help to dampen what seems to be a free flow of drugs.

Physicians represent another potential choke point. If people aren't prescribed opioids, they can't become addicted and move on to related drugs, such as heroin, which has become a major problem in Northeast Missouri and West-Central Illinois. That makes the FDA's expanded education mandate a welcome step.

The FDA already requires drugmakers to provide training to physicians about extended-release opioids. Now, they'll have to offer the training about fast-acting opioids, too, and provide information about pain management and non-drug therapies. Physicians don't have to accept the training, but they should.

Addiction is not a moral failing. The failing would be if government and other parties did not marshal all available resources against the scourge.

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