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Editorial: Tighter federal laws can curb painkiller abuse

Residents can safely dispose of expired or unused

Residents can safely dispose of expired or unused medications during a “Shed the Meds” event on Saturday. Credit: Newsday, 2012 / Audrey C. Tiernan

Prescription drug abuse -- which has raged at epidemic levels for years on Long Island -- is now a national health threat as well. And while strong federal action is overdue, Congress has been slow to act, thanks in part to pressure from the drug industry and pharmacies.

Its reluctance is unacceptable.

As a task force assembled by New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg noted in January, prescription painkillers are an important health care tool. But it added that opioid-based medications are also linked to high levels of misuse, leading to addiction, diversion of pills to the black market and fatal overdoses.

The toll is startling. These painkillers account for roughly three-fourths of all overdose deaths in the country. They lead to more fatalities than heroin and cocaine combined and claim more lives than traffic accidents.

Meanwhile, in New York City, about 7 percent of public school students in grades nine through 12 say they have used a prescription opioid for a nonmedical purpose within the last year.

And the abuse of these meds shows no sign of slowing. Since 1999, painkiller deaths have quadrupled nationwide.

Some positive steps have been taken.

New York State moved boldly to tackle the problem after four Long Islanders were massacred at a Medford pharmacy in 2011 by a man who fled the scene with more than 10,000 pain pills.

A package of bills drawn up by State Attorney General Eric T. Schneiderman, championed by state Sen. Kemp Hannon (R-Garden City), and unanimously passed by the legislature, aims to curb painkiller abuse in a state where such prescriptions skyrocketed by 82 percent from 2007 to 2010 alone. The legislation -- known as I-STOP, for the Internet System for Tracking Over-Prescribing Act -- contains crucial reforms.

It sets up a real-time database that lets pharmacists spot people who are doctor-shopping for narcotics. It compels doctors and pharmacists to consider a patient's history before they dispense pills containing oxycodone, the key ingredient in OxyContin and other frequently abused opioids. And it ends automatic refills for hydrocodone. The program will have a positive impact on the health of New Yorkers as it goes into effect over the next two years.

Another welcome advance is the Bloomberg administration's decision to reduce the regimen for painkillers like Vicodin to three days instead of 10 in city-run hospitals. More powerful meds like OxyContin and Fentanyl won't be prescribed at all. Long Island hospitals not doing the same should consider it.

The idea is to reduce chances of inadvertent addiction and to put a dent in the region's black market for pain pills.

Drawbacks? Some doctors and drug manufacturers argue that the new rules will make life unnecessarily hard for patients with a prolonged but legitimate need for heavy-duty pain killers. They have a point. But given the terrible toll diverted painkillers take on our society, it makes sense to err on caution's side.

Yet a massive problem remains.

Without a more powerful federal law, New Yorkers will always be awash in a sea of black-market painkillers, even though we now have some of the most stringent laws in the land. That's because illegal pills from other states can still easily find their way to our streets.


So we need a stronger national law.

For starters, it should require patients to seek new prescriptions for any refill of a hydrocodone-combination product. And it should require a higher level of security when medications are stored or moved. Such a measure was passed by the Senate but failed last June in the House of Representatives. To pack a maximum punch, unfortunately, these regulations must be national.

So for now, an advisory panel of the U.S. Food and Drug Administration has voted to tighten federal restrictions on hydrocodone combinations and make a few other changes. While this is better than nothing, the fight must go on.