- The Washington Times - Tuesday, May 28, 2019

A new study found that doctors have frequently prescribed opioids to teens and young adults who visit emergency rooms or outpatient clinics, prompting the study’s lead researcher to call on fellow physicians to rarely prescribe the painkillers.

Nearly 15% of people between 13 to 22 years old who visited emergency rooms (about 29 million) and 3% of those who visited outpatient clinics (about 23 million) were prescribed an opioid from 2005 to 2015, according to the study published Tuesday in the American Academy of Pediatrics.

“There’s now a pretty significant amount of data showing that adolescents and young adults are a very high-risk population when it comes to a lot of different risk behaviors, but specifically in this case, opioid misuse, future opioid addiction and substance use disorder,” Dr. Joel Hudgins, a Boston pediatrician and the study’s lead researcher, told The Washington Times.

The study analyzed two surveys by the National Center for Health Statistics, whose data were available only through 2015. The study does not account for recent changes in prescription protocols amid policy reforms and increased public awareness of the opioid crisis.

As the study was released Tuesday, the first trial of an opioid maker opened in Oklahoma, which alleges that Janssen Pharmaceuticals — a division of Johnson & Johnson — misled consumers and doctors about the addictive strength of its painkillers in order to increase its profits.

In his opening statement, state Attorney General Mike Hunter said that 4,653 Oklahomans died from opioid overdoses from 2007 to 2017.

“The pain, anguish and heartbreak that Oklahoma families, businesses, communities and individual Oklahomans face is almost impossible to comprehend,” Mr. Hunter said, describing the opioid epidemic as the “worst man-made public health crisis” in the history of the nation and his state.

Janssen Pharmaceuticals calls the allegations baseless and unsubstantiated.

“Our actions in the marketing and promotion of these important prescription pain medications were appropriate and responsible. The FDA-approved labels for these prescription pain medications provide clear information about their risks and benefits,” Janssen Pharmaceuticals told The Times.

The company said opioid abuse and addiction are serious public health issues, and it pledged its commitment to help address the epidemic.

Oklahoma’s lawsuit is part of a series of legal actions against drug companies nationwide. A federal judge in Ohio is overseeing 1,500 consolidated opioid lawsuits filed by various governments, The Associated Press reported.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has said that 47,600 people died from opioid overdoses in 2017.

Dr. Hudgins said that numerous parties have played a role in the opioid crisis — drug manufacturers who inappropriately marketed their goods, physicians who treated pain aggressively without investigating the medications and patients who “doctor-shopped” and used providers as pill factories.

“In any case like this, there’s a need for people to assign blame somewhere,” he told The Times. “So the pharmaceutical companies are a relatively easy mark for that because they seem like the big money-making machine that you can sort of blame for a lot of what’s happened.”

“As much as we like to blame one party, there’s no question there are several different things involved in any sort of epidemic like this,” he added.

Having learned of the possible effects of opioids on young patients, Dr. Hudgins said his habits with regard to painkillers have changed to the point where he rarely prescribes them.

Instead, the Boston Children’s Hospital pediatrician opts for non-narcotic medications like Tylenol and ibuprofen, which he said data suggests effectively treat pain.

Dr. Hudgins said he hopes his study will help parents realize the high risk of opioid abuse among youths and advocate for non-opioid intervention when they can.

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