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OxyCon Game: Anatomy of a Media-made Drug Scare

Fear-mongering reports regarding the presciption drug OxyContin are everywhere.
 
 
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In early January, Time Magazine became the first major media outlet in America to report on the growing abuse of a synthetic opioid prescription painkiller named OxyContin. According to the story, the drug was "so popular and addictive" that it was generating "a blizzard of a crime wave" in several "pockets of the nation." While the article admitted that it "has been hailed as a miracle" by legitimate users, it added that OxyContin pills were nicknamed "killers" in some areas due to the rapidly escalating toll of overdose deaths allegedly associated with its illicit use.

These two themes, that OxyContin is an ultra-powerful narcotic coveted by junkies for its uniquely intense high, and that it is responsible for scores if not hundreds of fatalities -- the specific numbers would vary widely -- were to be repeated ad nauseam in a spate of succeeding media accounts. Indeed, readers didn't know it at the time, but the Time piece was only the opening salvo in a sustained journalistic campaign -- conducted over the angry protests of pain specialists and their patients -- which has, in a space of a few short months, irredeemably stained the public image of a medication previously acknowledged as a major breakthrough in the treatment of debilitating, chronic pain.

In fact, in the last four months, reporting on OxyContin abuse has become a national media craze, with often sensational, fear-mongering stories appearing in hundreds of publications from Newsweek to small town newspapers in rural Midwestern hinterlands.

"Pain Pills Blamed for Rash of Deaths" the Associated Press proclaimed. "The 'poor man's heroin,'" U.S. News described the drug. "Prescription Painkiller Gains Status as Thrill Pill," claimed the Indianapolis Star, while the Cincinnati Enquirer called it the "'Heroin of the Midwest;' Traffickers' and Abusers' First Choice." But none could match the Port St. Lucie News, which called it the "New Crack" and touted its "Herion-Like High" in the same headline.

Taken together, all of these stories (and countless others) have misleadingly and preemptively proclaimed a major epidemic of OxyContin abuse. Yet experts say no evidence exists that increases in the abuse of the drug are outpacing increases in prescriptions for the drug. In fact, several incidents seem to suggest that the media's sensational coverage -- which advertises to the addicted the existence of the new drug and explains how to get it and use it -- may be contributing to the increase in OxyContin abuse.

Meanwhile, doctors and legitimate users have become needlessly afraid of utilizing an important advance in the treatment of pain.

The Dukes of Hazard

OxyContin was an instant hit with doctors when first introduced in December 1995. Hailed by pain management specialists as a wonder drug, the oxycodone-based formulation was considered a major advance in the medical profession's expanding effort to battle the debilitating effects of chronic pain. As the good news spread sales of the drug mushroomed, rising from $40 million in 1996 to more than $1 billion last year, outstripping even Viagra.

And the drug was a godsend for a bevy of patients who were not finding relief for their pain from other medications. "Without OxyContin I wouldn't be able to get out of bed in the morning, much less hold down a fill-time job," says Tracey Jordan of Houston, Texas, who suffers from three degenerative disks in her back. Prior to going on it in August 2000 she took a host of other medications, but they "were just too harsh, and didn't really take care of my pain," she said.

Media accounts of OxyContin's effectiveness were also glowing, though relatively few in number. For instance, in a September 1996 article Oxy was said to be enjoying "a groundswell of international support" at the annual meeting of the International Association of the Study of Pain (IASP), as members touted it as "an excellent opiod for moderate to severe pain."

But about 18 months ago -- roughly three-and-a-half years after OyxContin's auspicious debut -- some cases involving the illegal use of the drug surfaced in rural Maine. Soon after, the drug's popularity began to rise in rural Appalachia, especially parts of western Virginia, eastern Kentucky, West Virginia and southern Ohio (in and around Cincinnati). If claims of epidemic levels of abuse are true anywhere, it's here, says Ashland, KY pain specialist, Dr. Shelley Freimark. "In this area right now it is a severe problem," she states.

This can largely be chalked up to the fact that the usual street drugs are simply not as readily available in these rural outposts, says Dr. Phil Fisher, head of the Appalachian Pain Foundation (APF), a group formed last year by pain doctors devoted to educating the medical community and public about the uses and benefits of OxyContin: "This is an isolated area where it's hard for people to get real street drugs. By and large, OxyContin is not a street drug in most places."

Also, demographic and economic conditions in Appalachia have contributed to an established, long-term problem with prescription drug abuse in the region. In general, the population is older, Fisher says, and many suffer from chronic illnesses and debilitating diseases born of years working in the mines, increasing both the number of addicts and the availability of such drugs.

Still, outside of the region this development initially went largely ignored by the press. The media lacked a "hook," some spectacular news event around which to build their coverage of OxyContin. But that all changed on February 6 with "Operation Oxyfest 2001:" more than 100 Kentucky cops fanned out in "the largest drug raids in state history." Sweeping a five county area, they netted 207 dealers and users.

Within days, the OxyContin "epidemic" was national news, turning small town cops into minor celebrities. For example, Detective Roger Hall of the Harlan County Kentucky Sheriff's Department had the distinction of being quoted in two separate AP articles printed in scores of papers, despite the fact his claim that abusers "will kick a bag of cocaine aside to get to the Oxy" failed to make the absolutely fundamental distinction between nervous system depressants like OxyContin and stimulants like cocaine -- addicts of one are usually not addicted to the other.

Naturally, politicians weren't shy about chasing the free publicity either. With the heightened press interest, they convened a series of press conferences and public meetings in order to maximize press coverage of their efforts, such as on March 1 when Virginia Attorney General Mark Earley convened a major "summit" on the Oxy epidemic which included high ranking officials from five states. Not to be outdone by his neighbors, Kentucky governor Paul Patton, who had already proclaimed a "near epidemic" in his own state, announced the creation of the state-wide OxyContin task force, comprised of officials from 15 separate agencies.

Coverage built until April 9, the day Newsweek's cover screamed "Painkillers." Inside, the popular newsmagazine's writers penned two articles, one on the rising tide of prescription drug abuse in general and the other, titled "How One Town Got Hooked," on events in Hazard, KY, the town said to be at the center of the epidemic.

With the raids' success, and the massive press coverage they engendered, the existence of an Oxy epidemic became an integral part of the cultural zeitgeist, one which the press rapidly nationalized. After the wave of Kentucky stories by the big boys, the major urban newspapers in the East and Midwest assigned reporters to look for indications of a rising tide of abuse in their own localities. Unsurprisingly, they found what they were looking for.

Dying for a Fix

Many of the media's "thrill pill" stories have been centered on widely disseminated and divergent claims that OxyContin has been responsible for a shocking number of overdose deaths. Just how many is an open question. The numbers vary from paper to paper, and are at best unverifiable, at worst wildly inflated. Some of the published figures appear only once, in a single article, and leave no clue as to their origins. Others are widely used; most papers across the country claim that the drug has been responsible for more than 120 deaths, 59 since February 2000 in eastern Kentucky alone.

Repeated across the country, that latter figure originated in early February with public statements from Joseph Famularo, the U.S. Attorney for the Eastern District of Kentucky, who used it to justify the eight month investigation leading to Operation Oxyfest. In Virginia, the second hardest hit state, Attorney General Mark Earley struck next, claiming 32 deaths in southwestern Virginia since 1997, a figure that was later increased to 39 by Assistant Medical Examiner William Massello.

The press responded to these announcements with a flurry of stories. But none of the accounts, which repeatedly asserted these contentions of a fast-rising death toll in bold, large-type headlines and gut-punching story leads, bothered to ask how solid the numbers were and what they meant. If they had, they might have been a little more circumspect in their reporting.

"That figure was given to us by local law enforcement," says Wanda Roberts, U.S. Attorney Famularo's spokeswoman, about the 59 alleged Kentucky deaths. That it was generated by the same police officials who used it to justify Operation Oxyfest does not appear to trouble Ms. Roberts, though when asked she declines to confirm the figure as accurate.

The search for the truth leads to David W. Jones, executive director of the Kentucky State Medical Examiner's Office. "As far as deaths go, I've heard different numbers in different places at different times; I have no idea where these people are getting their facts and figures," he said. While he stresses that not every drug-related death is necessarily reported to his office, according to his data there were 27 oxycodone-related deaths in the entire state in 2000.

Of course at first glance 27 deaths over 12 months in a single state -- even in Kentucky, a state at ground zero in the spread of OxyContin abuse -- appears to support the implication that there has been an explosion in the number of Oxycontin drug abusers. But when Jones parses the numbers further, the situations appears far less grave.

Two of the 27 victims, he explains, were found to have traces of both oxycodone and alcohol in their bodies, with death caused by their interaction. What's more, 23 others evinced traces of a head-spinning multiplicity of other drugs in their systems, including highly potent prescription painkillers such as Dilaudid as well as powerful illegal drugs like heroin. In the final analysis, Jones reveals, only two of the 27 fatalities can be shown to have been due to the effects of oxycodone alone -- not just two in eastern Kentucky, two in the entire state.

As for Virginia, medical examiner Massello became notably tightlipped when asked for further details about his cases, though he did admit that a "significant number" of victims had multiple drugs in their bodies.

Other jurisdictions report similar findings. In Blair County, PA, which encompasses the city of Altoona, the county coroner has collected data which shows that of the 7 oxycodone-related deaths in her jurisdiction in the last five-plus years, six involved the presence of multiple drugs, often including heroin, and one was a suicide.

Moreover, there are additional facts that most accounts don't bother to mention: oxycodone is the opiod agent in around 40 separate brand-name prescription medications besides OxyContin; and OxyContin only accounts for about 25 percent of the oxycodone consumed annually. While Oxycontin is the strongest oxycodone formulation available, there is absolutely no way of telling, Jones explains, whether an oxycodone-related fatality was due to OxyContin.

For that matter, not everyone who dies from an oxycodone overdose does so accidentally. For the long-suffering, often terminal patients who comprise the vanguard of legitimate OxyContin users, suicide by opiate overdose often seems like a painless way to escape a life of terrific suffering. Yet such suicide cases are often lumped in with accidental overdoses, making the already inflated Oxy death numbers appear even greater.

Even when the deaths can be reliably confirmed, for the most part they do not point to a vast increase in the overall number of prescription drug abusers. Rather, the evidence of multiple-drug usage implies that a substantial portion of OxyContin abusers are long-standing drug addicts who have either switched to Oxy from other prescription or illegal drugs, or alternatively, take OxyContin occasionally as a substitute for other more preferable drugs which may be in short supply in areas such as rural Kentucky.

"Most of these people have been abusing prescription drugs for awhile, and have just switched over to OxyContin," says Kentucky state representative Jack Coleman, a legislative expert on prescription drug abuse and a member of the recently state-formed OxyContin task force. "The problem is not particularly the abuse of OxyContin," he adds, "it's with prescription drug abuse in general."

His view is echoed by Dr. Karla Berkholz, board member of the American Academy of Family Physicians, who says that "6 to 7 percent of the American population uses illicit substances, and that number has held pretty steady over time."

Consistent with Dr. Berkholz's analysis is the number of oxycodone-related emergency room (ER) visits -- a more reliable figure than oxycodone-related overdoses. There was a 72 percent increase in the number of oxycodone-derived ER incidents, from 3,060 in the first half of 1999 to 5,261 in the equivalent period in 2000, according to the federal government's Drug Abuse Warning Network (DAWN). But that's still tiny compared to other drugs; for example, there were 18 cocaine-related ER visits for each involving oxycodone.

And legitimate use of OxyContin rose by a similar amount, argues Dr. Fisher. Vicodin poses a much more serious prescription drug problem, since illegal usage of it as a percentage of total sales is rising much faster than with oxycodone: "Compared to it, Oxy only accounts for 10 percent of the cases but gets 90 percent of the attention," Dr. Fisher said.

Old Wine, New Bottles

So if the OxyContin abuse phenomenon isn't nearly as bad as it's made out to be, why has it received so much media attention?

Much of the problem stems from the advent of the openly declared War on Drugs in the early 1980s, when the media signed on as a full partner in the government's effort to demonize drug use and stigmatize users. "The media presented the drug problem as a war of the holy people against the depraved people, and we haven't gone far past that moralizing tone unfortunately" says nationally recognized media critic Norman Solomon.

But the war on drugs only worsened the media's sensational coverage of the abuse of drugs like OxyContin. OxyContin is new, and the media are constantly in search of something different, unusual or unknown with which to titillate its audience. "The media are thrill-seekers looking for the next big ratings turn-on," Solomon said.

At the beginning of the last decade the media grew fixated with "ice," a smokable form of speed, which a slew of print articles and television reports touted as "the crack of the 90s." But ice never attained the exalted heights media prognosticators prematurely predicted - it was apparently too expensive and difficult to manufacture.

And Dr. June Dahl, professor of pharmacology at the University of Wisconsin Medical School and president of the American Alliance of Cancer Pain Initiatives, likens the current spate of "ultimately exaggerated" Oxy stories to the 1930s era film Reefer Madness, with its laughably over-the-top rendering of the evils of marijuana use.

Racism and the media's thrill seeking tendency probably best explain why OxyContin receives more media attention than heroin for example. Though contradicted by statistics compiled by the federal government, the public perception persists that heroin and crack are ghetto drugs abused by poor people of color. Could it be we don't see 15 heroin stories for every Oxy one because prescription drug abuse is known to be primarily a white, middle-class phenomenon?

Whites accounted for about 60 percent of the heroin-related ER visits, according to DAWN. But a whopping 87 percent of oyxcodone-related ER patients were white, more than for any other significantly abused drug.

Epidemic in a Teapot

Unfortunately, the media's wrongheaded anti-OxyContin zeal is more than just a cultural oddity. It is dangerous.

While levels of Oxy abuse do appear to be rising in some urban areas, particularly in the East and Midwest, that growth seems to follow rather than precede the heavy attention devoted to the phenomenon by major metropolitan dailies, leading to the strong suspicion that the overblown reports are largely responsible for the rise.

"I never heard of the stuff until about a month ago when one of my customers asked me about it," one Cleveland heroin dealer said in mid-April. "He showed me an article in the paper that talked about how everyone wanted to get hold of this shit, so I did a little checking and found some available."

In Cleveland, the local daily, the Plain Dealer, had taken its first stab at the OxyContin story on Feb. 10. The story, "Abuse of prescription painkiller spreading: Overdoses are believed to have killed dozens," opened by recounting a pharmacy holdup in the area. And within two months not only had a drug dealer found an OxyContin supply, but two copycat holdups had occured.

The first pharmacy was robbed on Feb. 16, six days after the publication of the story. As in the story, a masked man wielding a firearm demanded the store's entire supply of OxyContin and escaped with more than 1,100 OxyContin pills of various doses. On Sunday, April 22 a second pharmacy in the Cleveland suburbs was robbed; again, the robber zeroed in on the Oxy.

The Real Victims

All of the media hype, complete with gripping headlines and fear-generating content, is provoking anger and derision from growing numbers of medical professionals who specialize in chronic pain management. For years, this area of medical treatment was largely ignored or underemphasized by most physicians, says Dr. Dahl. "Historically, there have been a lot of inaccurate preconceptions and over-sensitivity about opiod analgesics and other narcotics, which has kept them from being used as much as they should."

Now, the flurry of accounts surrounding Oxy has not only stalled progress in this area, but has sent the treatment of chronic pain reeling backwards into ignorance and fear.

As the media flurry has heightened, the Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA) has begun to take action against Purdue, the makers of OxyContin, and the doctors who prescribe OxyContin. In early May, in a first for the agency -- it had never before fixed its sights on a single prescription drug -- it began to pressure Purdue into discontinuing all marketing of OxyContin to general practitioners, who comprise the vast majority of doctors.

So far Purdue has resisted the DEA effort, much to the relief of pain experts. "It's a ridiculous idea," snorts Dr. Barry Cole of the American Academy of Pain Management. "There are only 7,000 pain doctors in the entire country, not nearly enough to treat everyone who needs this medication." However, Purdue has temporarily halted shipments of the largest 160mg size pills, introduced two years ago for the treatment of terminal cancer patients.

In addition, the DEA has publicly announced that it is launching a crackdown on "over-prescribing" physicians. One doctor in southern Virginia recently reported that 30 minutes after a visit from a Purdue sales representative, local DEA agents descended on his office to question him about what the rep had told him and whether he intended to prescribe the drug to any of his patients.

In light of such developments, more and more doctors are becoming leery of prescribing OxyContin though thousands of patients desperately need the medication, as even the Washington Post admitted in a May 2 story. One doctor in St. Charles, Virginia has even begun a petition drive to pressure Purdue into withdrawing the drug from the market.

"As a pain specialist, my job is to take care of the worst of the worst cases," Dr. Fisher says, "but now I'm seeing run-of-the-mill patients whose doctors are afraid that they'll be prosecuted for prescribing OxyContin, or that they're somehow being duped and the drugs they prescribe will end up on the street."

In addition, the negative media attention is not only making it more difficult for legitimate patients to get the medicine they need, it is making them afraid of taking it when it is prescribed to them. "I'm treating two little old preacher's wives," Fisher relates. "Both are afraid of getting addicted, and one is sure someone's going to break into her home to get her supply of the drug."