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FDA moves to limit prescriptions of highly-addictive pain killers

The number of deaths caused by the overprescription of painkillers like hydrocodone has become an epidemic in recent years in Florida and throughout the country. Now the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) is taking a big step toward trying to control the abuse of these narcotics. The federal agency has recommended stringent restrictions on the prescription of these drugs.

Drugs containing hydrocodone are widely prescribed legitimately by both doctors and dentists for acute pain. However, they are also dispensed by less-than-reputable "pain clinics." According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), opioid-based painkiller overdoses killed over 16,500 people in 2010 -- more than any other drug, including illegal ones.

The change, if approved, will impact prescriptions of drugs containing hydrocodone, known more commonly by brand names like Vicodin and Lortab. It is also widely dispensed in generic form. Drugs that contain hydrocodone would be changed to Schedule II, which is the classification reserved for the most addictive medications. Only a 90-day supply of Schedule II drugs like OxyContin can be obtained without a new prescription. Currently, the painkillers can be refilled up to five times over six months.

Of course, the recommended changes are not welcome by everyone. Drug manufacturers, wholesalers, and pharmacists, as well as the American Cancer Society caution that the increased regulation of hydrocodone could penalize patients who legitimately need pain medication. They suggest other options to curb abuse and overdoses, such as better monitoring of drug prescriptions, more education of doctors, and increased targeting of the "pain clinics" that operate only to supply addicts and make money for the people who run them.

Drug safety advocates have been fighting for this change. They and families who have lost loved ones to hydrocodone overdose contend that these drugs are just as addictive as the Schedule II narcotics that are more closely regulated.

The FDA's recommendation just needs to be approved by the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS), which is its parent agency, and the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA), which originally requested that reclassification be considered. If the classification of these drugs is changed, physicians may face more medical malpractice suits, as well as fines and other legal problems. However, people who want to get their hands on more of these painkillers can still go to multiple doctors or less than legitimate sources until other changes are made. Nonetheless, it is a step in the right direction.

Source: The Wall Street Journal, "FDA Recommends New Limits on Pain Drugs" Thomas M. Burton and Timothy W. Martin, Oct. 24, 2013

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