This State’s Prescription Painkiller Addiction Ignited A Massive Turn To Heroin

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Steve Birr Vice Reporter
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States with high levels of prescription painkiller abuse are getting ravaged by the national heroin epidemic, and attempts to make the pills safer are causing more deaths.

The opioid epidemic is taking a toll in every state but some are experiencing much larger year-over-year jumps than others. Kentucky lost 1,273 residents to drug overdoses in 2015, a 21 percent spike over the death rate in 2014. A prescription painkiller originally pitched as difficult to abuse appears to bear primary responsibility for propelling the surge in heroin deaths since 2010. Purdue Pharma reformulated one of the most powerful painkillers on the market in 2010 to make it harder to abuse, which forced users to turn to states with high OxyContin abuse rates, reports WFPL.

Researchers from RAND Corp. and the Wharton School concluded abuse-deterrent OxyContin is directly responsible for roughly “80% of the three-fold increase in heroin mortality since 2010.”

“They’re all efforts to control the people from using, instead of dealing with the problem that they are using,” Maurice Ludwick, the director of a halfway house in the state, told WFPL. “These people just moved to something else. The underlying issue is addiction.”

Kentucky had an OxyContin misuse rate of 97 percent between 2004 and 2008. Heroin fatalities were on a steady decline in the state until 2010, when Purdue Pharma reformulated the pill. Heroin deaths in Kentucky have more than tripled since 2010. Heroin cut with fentanyl, a powerful painkiller 50 to 100 times stronger than morphine, is becoming a mounting problem throughout the state. Fentanyl deaths in Kentucky jumped 34 percent in 2015.

Health officials in Kentucky say the reformulation of OxyContin, while not intended to do so, created a monster now plaguing communities across the country.

“States with the highest initial rates of OxyContin misuse experienced the largest increases in heroin deaths,” wrote the researchers in the National Bureau of Economic Research. “Results show that this differential increase in heroin deaths began precisely in the year following reformulation.”

The reformulation succeeded in its intended purpose of reducing overall abuse of OxyContin, but it came with disastrous unintended consequences. There are 3.1 more heroin deaths per 100,000 people for every percentage decrease in OxyContin abuse.

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