From the National Pain Report
A drug increasingly being used to treat opioid addiction may be fueling a new epidemic of diversion, overdose, addiction and death in the United States.
The drug’s name is buprenorphine, but it is more widely known by its brand name – Suboxone
– which for many years was sold exclusively by Reckitt-Benckiser, a British pharmaceutical company. Since Reckitt’s patent on Suboxone expired in 2012, several other drug makers have rushed to introduce their own formulations – hoping to grab a share of the $1.5 billion market for Suboxone in the U.S.
Two generic versions of buprenorphine were introduced earlier this year. And this month a Swedish drug maker began selling a menthol flavored tablet – called Zubsolv – that is designed to mask the bitter taste of buprenorphine. Other formulations of the drug include a film strip that dissolves under the tongue and a buprenorphine skin patch. One company is even developing a buprenorphine implant to be inserted under the skin.
“This is insanity,” says Percy Menzies, a pharmacist and addiction expert. “Buprenorphine is one of the most abused pharmaceuticals in the world.”
Buprenorphine is a narcotic, a powerful and potentially addicting painkiller that was first approved as a treatment for opioid addiction in the U.S. in 2002. When combined with naloxone to make Suboxone, the two drugs can be used to help wean addicts off opioids such as heroin, Vicodin, OxyContin, and hydrocodone. Naloxone blocks opioid receptors in the brain and central nervous system.
Over three million Americans with opioid dependence have been treated with Suboxone. Although praised by addiction experts as a tool to wean addicts off opioids, some are fearful the drug is overprescribed and misused.
A report by the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) found a ten-fold increase in the number of emergency room visits involving buprenorphine. Over half of the 30,000 hospitalizations in 2010 were for non-medical use of buprenorphine.
How many died from buprenorphine overdoses is unknown, because medical examiners and coroners do not routinely test for the drug.
The problem with Suboxone, according to Menzies, is that many addicts have learned they can use the medication, not to treat their addiction, but to maintain it. Suboxone won’t get them “high” but it will help them smooth out withdrawal symptoms between highs.
Suboxone is so popular with addicts that it has turned into a street drug – to be bartered or exchanged for money, heroin or other illegal drugs. According to one estimate, about half of the buprenorphine obtained through legitimate prescriptions is either being diverted or used illicitly.