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OxyContin gets a safety makeover

April 7, 2010 |  9:42 am

Oxycontin The painkiller OxyContin can be plenty dangerous if you knowingly abuse it; but it has long posed real dangers of overdose, as well, to those who had little thought of getting high. Cutting a pill in half may sound like a swell way to get just a little relief on a day when that chronic pain problem isn't so bad. But oxycodone, the chemical name of this often-prescribed opioid painkiller, has traditionally been packaged in high doses meant to release slowly over time so they can be taken once or twice daily. Cutting such pills can release of a high dose of opioid medication into the system very fast, risking overdose.

With both sets of risk -- accidental overdose and abuse -- in mind, the Food and Drug Administration this week approved a new formulation for OxyContin. In its new form, OxyContin will be much harder to crush, cut, ground, chew or dissolve in liquid. It's hardly the answer to opioid addiction and abuse. But, said the physician in charge of the FDA's division of anesthesia and analgesic drugs, Dr. Bob Rappaport, "it is still a step in the right direction." 

OxyContin, introduced to the U.S. market in 1996, quickly became a drug of choice for abusers, and, along with related drugs such as Percocet, Vicodin and methadone, has dramatically driven up overdose rates in the United States. (Between 2004 and 2005 alone, there was a 17% increase in emergency department visits attributable to oxycodone abuse.) A recent report by the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Service Administration found that more than a half-million Americans began abusing OxyContin each year for the last several years. 

In approving the new formulation, the FDA has ordered the maker of OxyContin, Purdue Pharma, to conduct a post-marketing study  aimed at determining whether and by how much the new formulation reduces abuse and overdoses.

-- Melissa Healy

Photo: Painkiller OxyContin, shown at a drugstore in 2001; in its new form, it will be much harder to crush, cut or dissolve in liquid. Credit: Darren McCollester / Getty Images