Newspaper article

Doctor Who Encouraged Wider Use of Opioid Painkillers Is Having Second Thoughts

Newspaper article

Doctor Who Encouraged Wider Use of Opioid Painkillers Is Having Second Thoughts

Article excerpt

Dr. Russell Portenoy, the New York-based pain-care specialist who helped lead the campaign in the 1990s to make prescription pain medications more widely available, is apparently having second thoughts about the wisdom of that effort.

He now admits that perhaps, just perhaps, he overstated the benefits and understated the risks of Vicodin, OxyContin, Percocet and other prescription opioids, according to an article published Monday in the Wall Street Journal.

"Did I teach about pain management, specifically about opioid therapy, in a way that reflects misinformation? Well, against the standards of 2012, I guess I did," Dr. Portenoy told WSJ reporters Thomas Catan and Evan Perez. "We didn't know then what we know now."

The phrase "too little, too late" immediately jumps to mind. For as Catan and Perez point out, the United States is now struggling with a huge and tragic prescription pain-medication problem. More than 15,000 Americans die each year as a result of opioid addiction - - more than die from all illegal drugs combined, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The financial burden of this problem is also enormous. The CDC estimates that health insurers spend more than $72 billion each year on direct medical costs related to the non-medical use of prescription painkillers.

Dr. Portenoy -- who has had financial relationships with more than a dozen drug companies over the years, including those that make and market opioid painkillers -- played a central role in getting us to this point.

Apparently, he did it by mixing questionable science with personal charm. Here's an excerpt from the WSJ article:

Opium-derived painkillers have been around for thousands of years. Early in the 20th century, heroin was sold as a cough suppressant. Heroin addiction in the U.S. skyrocketed. Congress banned the drug in 1924 and doctors became deeply wary about using opioids.

Dr. Portenoy set out to change that. As a young doctor at Memorial Sloan-Kettering hospital in New York, he noticed that opioids were effective in cancer patients with terrible pain. …

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