In February of 2001, journalist Barry Meier of The New York Times began searching for the roots of a public health catastrophe with effects that reached all levels of American society — a new prescription painkiller called OxyContin, which was turning out to be as dangerous and addictive as heroin.
Meier spoke about his book, “Pain Killer: A ‘Wonder’ Drug’s Trail of Addiction and Death,” which chronicles the results of his investigation, before roughly 20 people at a Davenport College Master’s Tea Monday.
The Food and Drug Administration approved the drug, an extremely concentrated opium-derived narcotic, for use by people like cancer patients who suffer from high levels of pain. But, Meier said, OxyContin was placed in the hands of doctors who had too little time and experience to administer it properly, and a range of people from rural teens to prominent celebrities such as radio commentator Rush Limbaugh and singer Courtney Love became addicted to it.
“A drug that was once only used in cancer wards was now being widely disbursed by small town doctors,” Meier said. “This drug jumped out of the system and became a rampant street drug.”
During his talk, Meier examined the issue of who was culpable in the crisis. He pointed to doctors who were reluctant to talk about addiction for fear of losing their power to help those truly suffering from intense pain. He also implicated the manufacturer of the drug, a Connecticut company called Perdue Pharma, for its unwillingness to confront the problem, as well as the government for its slow response to the mounting crisis.
The discussion of OxyContin brought up larger issues such as the sea change over the past decade in how people regard the dangers of prescribing opiates for the treatment of pain. “Revulsion” at the suffering of cancer patients brought about this change, Meier said. This suffering went largely unalleviated because doctors were afraid to prescribe powerful painkillers, lest their patients develop a dependency on them.
“With the introduction of OxyContin was fundamental change; narcotics were okay to use,” Meier said.
Meier also attributed the shift in opinion to the recent merging of the pharmaceutical and medical industries. This merge was begun in part by the efforts of Dr. Arthur Sackler of Perdue Pharma, a man whom Meier called both “brilliant” and “manipulative.” Sackler pioneered many new pharmaceutical advertising techniques, such as marketing drugs directly to doctors and consumers. Meier said he worried that doctors, taught about drugs primarily by the drugs’ manufacturers, might receive slanted information.
Some audience members said they saw the issue from a different perspective. Patricia Trotta NUR ’78 and Janet Gordon, both pain education specialists for the American Cancer Society, expressed concern for the welfare of the patients who suffer daily from excruciating pain.
“The media has definitely gone overboard in the addiction part. My concern is the under-treatment of pain,” Gordon said. “We need to talk about our rights to good pain management.”
Trotta described the problem as “a tricky situation to balance.”
“He seems very reasonable in pointing out where we’ve all fallen down,” Trotta said.
Trotta and Gordon said they agreed with Meier on one point in particular — if drugs such as OxyContin are to remain on the market, their distribution must be handled differently in the future.
“The drug must be placed in the right hands,” Meier said. “There must be education and training — pharmaceutical companies must be up front and clear, and there’s got to be an awareness that these drugs cannot be abused.”
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