The Register-Herald, Beckley, West Virginia

December 18, 2013

Put a stop to drug abuse

— A national physicians’ group has called on doctors to cure themselves of overprescribing pharmaceutical painkillers.

Last week, the American College of Physicians urged its members — composed of internists — to voluntarily crack down on handing out so many scripts for painkillers such as Vicodin and OxyContin.

Some doctors, like Dr. Tom Frieden, director of the national Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, have accused their colleagues of not just complicity in the misuse of painkillers but they claim the epidemic is “doctor-caused.”

We should be clear that, while we agree that doctors have failed to exercise restraint in prescribing pharmaceutical painkillers, not all doctors are guilty. And patients, too, have a degree of responsibility for demanding opiate-like painkillers from doctors when other, less habit-forming drugs, might do just fine.

Why is West Virginia so caught up in this scourge?

The pill mills, as they’re called, aren’t even that secret. All of us are aware of the clientele of these so-called medical clinics. It’s no coincidence that many of the vehicles driven by the “patients” that are parked in the lots at these sites are just as likely to be registered in Virginia and Maryland as West Virginia.

We believe abuse of prescription painkillers is so prevalent here because of loose West Virginia and federal laws.

In October, in an effort to close federal loopholes in the sale of narcotic painkillers, the Food and Drug Administration recommended that hydrocodone combinations like Vicodin and Lortab be reclassified to Schedule II drugs, which would place tougher restrictions on their availability, and make it harder for patients to get a prescription.

We think West Virginia lawmakers need to step up as well, and tighten regulations that make painkillers so easy to obtain.

It won’t be easy, and it will take courage. The pharmaceutical painkiller industry is estimated to be worth $9 billion annually, and those who profit from these sales will lobby to prevent any changes to the current system.

Some pharmacist and physician groups, including the American Medical Association, also have warned that tightening regulations on pharmaceutical painkillers could harm patients who genuinely need them.

And some in law enforcement caution that eliminating access to pharmaceutical painkillers will leave a void that will be filled by non-prescription alternatives, such as heroin.

We need to be reminded that the consequences of the abuse of prescription drugs are especially grim. Since 1999, deaths from painkiller overdoses have risen 400 percent among women and 265 percent among men.

Those are powerful statistics. Yet those deaths are just part of a devastating circle that, like a dark whirlpool, also sucks down families, friends and even communities.

It will take courage and conviction to meet this challenge. Ultimately, it is a matter of when we become angry enough to really begin.