U.S. Rep. Hal Rogers, Kentucky’s 5th District representative in Washington, has long been a friend to those working to combat substance abuse, both in the commonwealth and across the nation.
In 2003, he helped launch Operation UNITE, which created of coalition of enforcement, treatment and education groups aimed at reducing the drug culture that had become prevalent in eastern and southern Kentucky. In the years since, he’s continued those efforts, focusing particularly on prescription drugs and the “pain clinics” that over-prescribe them. He currently serves as co-chairman of the Congressional Caucus on Prescription Drug Abuse.
His latest target is a new drug called Zohydro ER, which recently received approval from the U.S. Food and Drug Administration. The drug is marketed as a powerful painkiller that will help people suffering from chronic pain, but does not pose the risk of liver damage because it doesn’t contain acetaminophen.
It does, however, contain a pure form of hydrocodone, and that is where Rogers sees a problem. He’s concerned that the FDA did not require any measures to prevent abusers from crushing the pill up and injesting it for a quicker, longer-lasting high. Rogers said he doesn’t want to see a repeat of what happened in the 1990s when OxyContin hit the market.
“In southern and eastern Kentucky, we lost nearly an entire generation when crushable OxyContin was first prescribed, and I fear this crushable, pure hydrocodone pill will take us backward with a new wave of addiction and tragic, untimely deaths,” Rogers said.
He isn’t alone in his concern. Kentucky Attorney General Jack Conway told the Lexington Herald-Leader that the FDA’s decision is a “step backward” and “wrong-headed.” He’s joining state prosecutors in 27 other states in expressing concerns over the new drug.
Clearly there’s enough concern that the FDA should reconsider and look for alternatives that reduce the high when the pill is crushed, similar to what has been done with later versions of OxyContin. We support Rogers, Conway and others in making this happen.
But we have to be blunt as well — there’s only so much that legislation can do. Consider what Dan Smoot, president of Operation UNITE, told the Herald-Leader. “There’s no way around this not being another OxyContin epidemic if it’s released on us. I’m just afraid it would be devastating, to our region in particular.”
There’s nothing about the drug Zohydro itself — or OxyContin for that matter — that makes a particular region more susceptible to abuse than another. It’s a prescription drug, made legally in a laboratory and sold legally in a pharmacy. It doesn’t have any special powers that somehow make it more addictive to rural Kentuckians.
So at some point, you have to look beyond the drug and address the underlying issues that are actually causing the problems. You can regulate OxyContin, Zohydro, or the next prescription drug to come out of the pipeline, all you want. But the substance abuse epidemic in Appalachia won’t truly be tackled until education levels are improved, generational poverty starts to ease, quality health care is more accessible, economic development begins to grow and general quality of life improves to the point that more people have more to look forward to than finding their next high.
— Messenger-Inquirer, Owensboro