Editorial: New painkiller will worsen drug epidemic

Zohydro will be the first pure hydrocodone medication Zohydro will be the first pure hydrocodone medication available in the United States on Oct. 1, 2012. Photo Credit: Zogenix

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With the nation and Long Island in the grip of an epidemic of prescription painkiller abuse, it's a bewildering mistake to make the narcotic hydrocodone legally available in a pure form so ripe for abuse that addicts must be drooling in anticipation. But that's what the Food and Drug Administration has done.

Zohydro ER will hit the market tomorrow. The FDA approved the high-dose, extended-release hydrocodone capsules for sale last year without requiring tamper-resistant formulations that would make it impossible to crush into powder, the preferred form for abuse. It was greenlighted over the commonsense objection of the FDA's own expert advisory panel that recommended in 2012 clearing only tamper-resistant forms for sale.

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Hydrocodone belongs to a group of addictive medicines that includes morphine and codeine. So does oxycodone, the drug in the painkiller OxyContin, which since 2010 has been sold in pills that can't be crushed into powder. When crushed, the pills become a gel or paste, which deters abuse. The FDA should reconsider its decision not to impose a similar requirement for Zohydro ER. If it doesn't, then somebody -- Congress? Mr. President? -- should supersede the agency.

Used as intended, Zohydro ER could be a boon for people in severe, chronic pain. Its pure hydrocodone eliminates the risk of liver damage that can result from the long-term use of other available products that combine hydrocodone with acetaminophen. The FDA acknowledged the greater risks with the strong, extended-release formulation. It wisely required postmarketing studies to assess misuse, abuse, addiction, overdose and death. But requiring it to be tamper-resistant would reduce the potential for diversion into the illegal market.

The last thing a nation with a drug problem needs is a powerful new medicine ready-made for abuse.

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