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Prince and the Opioid Epidemic: ‘These Are Essentially Heroin Pills,’ Expert Says

”We are routinely prescribing them for common problems,“ doctor says of painkillers such as Percocet

Prince’s death was a tragic loss — one that will be made even more tragic if, as reported, he was hospitalized after overdosing on Percocet days before his death, and suffered from what has been called a “substantial” problem with the opioid painkiller.

But while Prince’s demise may serve as a high-profile example of the dangers of opioid painkillers, he would be one of many examples, according to Dr. Andrew Kolodny, executive director of Physicians for Responsible Opioid Prescribing.

In an interview with TheWrap, Kolodny pointed to a decades-long “era of aggressive prescribing” that has resulted in thousands of deaths and untold numbers of people addicted to opioid painkillers.

“This is the worst drug addiction epidemic in United States history,” the New York-based physician said. “These are essentially heroin pills, and they are as dangerous as heroin.”

According to Kolodny, more than 250,000 Americans died of opioid overdoses between 1999 and 2014. His group’s website states that approximately 44 people die from narcotic painkillers every day — far outpacing the 16 heroin deaths per day.

Kolodny noted that both opioids and heroin are derived by chemically treating opium — and that the effects they produce on the brain are “indistinguishable.”

“It’s probably easier for you to tell the difference between Coke and Pepsi than it is for a heroin user to tell the difference between oxycodone (the main ingredient of Percocet, along with acetaminophen) and heroin,” Kolodny said.

According to Kolodny, prior to 1996, opioid overdoses in the United States were “pretty rare.” That changed, however, due to a “brilliant marketing campaign” by pharmaceutical company Purdue Pharma as it introduced its product OxyContin to the market in 1996.

“It was a multi-faceted campaign that led the medical community to believe that we had been under-prescribing opioids because of an overblown fear of addiction,” Kolodny said. “[Physicians were] getting the message that if you’re an enlightened physician in the know, you’ll realize that you should be different from those stingy doctors of the past that were letting patients suffer. It was a very compelling message, and we responded.”

The result, he said, was “a public health catastrophe.”

“We are routinely prescribing them for common problems,” Kolodny said.

In response to the epidemic, Kolodny said, steps are being taken to tackle the issue. In March, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention issued new guidelines for prescribing opioid medications for chronic pain to “help primary care providers ensure the safest and most effective treatment for their patients.”

The federal and state governments have also taken steps to tackle the epidemic, Kolodny said, though the doctor had harsh words for the Food and Drug Administration.

“They could have stopped Purdue Pharma from its aggressive marketing of OxyContin. And not only didn’t they do that, but they actually made it easier for other drug companies to put their opioids on the market, and they’ve been allowing the marketing of opioids for conditions where they’re not safe or effective,” Kolodny said.

Crucial to counteracting the epidemic of opioid addiction, Kolodny said, is making doctors and other medical professionals better aware of the dangers.

“We have a very badly misinformed medical community that we’re now trying to re-educate,” Kolodny said.