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Starker Warning Labels for Prescription Painkillers

Prescription pain relievers – in particular, opioids – are a godsend for many people who live with pain. But abuse and misuse of these medications are also at an all-time high. In an effort to reduce a growing epidemic of dependence and addiction and an avalanche of overdose deaths, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) is requiring stronger warning labels for opioid drugs.

The labeling changes apply to all extended-release and long-acting opioid medications. These include oxycodone, hydrocodone and other narcotics that are prescribed to treat pain.

“Taken responsibly, these drugs can speed recovery from illness and injury, and they enable many people who would otherwise not be able to work to lead productive lives,” says LHSFNA’s Management Co-Chairman Noel C. Borck. “However, when they use these drugs long-term, patients can easily become dependent and develop tolerances that lead to taking increasingly higher doses for relief. This can lead to overdoses and death.”

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LHSFNA Management Co-Chairman Noel C. Borck

Drug overdose deaths have more than tripled in the United States in the last 20 years. Opioid pain relievers are responsible for three out of every four of these deaths.

In a statement posted on the FDA website, Douglas Throckmorton, M.D., deputy director of the Agency’s Center for Drug Evaluation and Research, said the labeling changes “describe more clearly the risks and safety concerns associated with extended release and long-acting medications…and will encourage better, more appropriate, prescribing, monitoring and patient counseling practices involving these drugs.”

Once reserved for people in acute pain – cancer patients, for example – opioids are now the most prescribed class of medications in both the United States and Canada. Scripts for opioids are written to address chronic pain from arthritis as well as everyday aches caused by pulled muscles. Many times, these conditions can be effectively treated with acetaminophen and non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDS) such as ibuprofen and naproxen. These pain relievers do not lead to dependence and addiction. They can also be purchased over-the-counter in non-prescription doses.

The FDA asks doctors to consider limiting opioid prescriptions to people who are in severe pain and only when no other pain relievers are effective. The agency also asks drug manufacturers, who in the past have promoted the safety of opioid products, to conduct additional studies so that they will have a better understanding of the risks that come with long-term use.

“If you are taking an opioid medication, or any medication, always be vigilant about taking it as directed,” says Borck. “Familiarize yourself with its risks and what is permitted in your employer’s drug testing policy. Also, talk to your doctor about what you do for a living as it is important that safety concerns be taken into consideration when pain medication is prescribed. Depending on your situation, there may be safer alternatives.”

The LHSFNA has a prescription drug addiction health alert that can be ordered through the Fund’s Publications Catalogue. The LHSFNA also offers a drug free workplace training program. Call 202-628-5465 for further information.

[Janet Lubman Rathner]

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