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13 Investigates: Opioids are killing people in record numbers. What can be done to save lives?

FDA pushes for non-addictive pain pills
More than 30 states reporting increases in opioid overdoses amid pandemic
Posted at 7:28 PM, Feb 22, 2022
and last updated 2022-02-23 22:04:56-05

LAS VEGAS (KTNV) — COVID-19 has been top of mind for two years, but there's another epidemic bubbling under the surface.

The crisis with prescription painkillers is killing people in record numbers. 13 Investigates digs into the FDA's latest push to save lives.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention's most recent data, 100,306 Americans died from a drug overdose in a single year. That's a 28.5% increase from the previous year.

13 Investigates began spotlighting the opioid epidemic in 2014. As we revealed that year in our series "Prescription for Pain," patients seeking relief were suddenly forced to go without their medication after the Drug Enforcement Administration cracked down on the largest pharmacy chains in the country.

At the time, the DEA told us they were simply enforcing the Controlled Substances Act from the 1970s.

It was a chaotic time for doctors and pharmacists while patients were seemingly profiled on random criteria, all in an effort to reduce prescriptions for opioid-based pain medications across the country.

But it didn't work — despite a tidal wave of lawsuits against major pharmaceutical companies and the billions those companies paid out to state and local governments, doctors prescribing fewer pain pills, and the overall increased understanding of substance abuse disorder. According to the CDC, 47,055 lives were lost in 2014 due to overdose. That's less than half of the most recent numbers.

STUDY: More than 1 million people will die from opioids in this decade

The United States represents about 4.25% of the world's population, but at least 80% of the world's pain pills are consumed here.

"That's astronomical. We're way over-prescribing... in a way, over-utilizing opioids," said Dr. Krystal Riccio, Associate Professor of pharmacy at Roseman University Health Sciences.

"We're using them in younger patients," she added. "We're using them in procedures that other countries might use alternate agents to treat that pain, and are quite successful in doing so."

Now, the FDA is pushing for the development of non-addictive pain pills. The agency is taking first steps by sending out guidance to companies, encouraging drug companies to find something that can reduce pain without getting people hooked.

"We haven't found that yet," Riccio said. "We're looking for it. We're trying to encourage people to use non-opioid pain relievers as an alternate method, that there are other avenues. Physical therapy, surgery might even be an option for some people."

It sounds simple enough, but finding a drug that is both non-addictive and reduces acute pain is something of a "holy grail" that's eluded the scientific community for more than 200 years, since morphine was introduced.

While the CDC says fentanyl is partly to blame for the rise in fatal overdoses, the agency notes overdose deaths related to prescription pain pills have also increased.

MORE: Fentanyl is the leading cause of death in Americans ages 18-45

We asked the FDA if there was any specific new type of drug or research that shows promise, but the agency says it cannot confirm or comment on any current or pending applications.

The FDA wants to hear your thoughts on all this. Click here to provide the FDA with your comments.

Find more in-depth reporting from 13 Investigates at ktnv.com/13-investigates.

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