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Opiates block pain but also unleash intense feelings of well-being and can create physical dependence. The withdrawal symptoms are also intense, with users complaining of cramps, diarrhea, muddled thinking, nausea and vomiting.
After a while, opiates stop working, forcing users to take stronger doses or to try slightly different chemicals.
"You've got a person on your product for life, and a doctor's got a patient who's never going to miss an appointment, because if they did and they didn't get their prescription, they would feel very sick," said Andrew Kolodny, president of Physicians for Responsible Opioid Prescribing. "It's a terrific business model, and that's what these companies want to get in on."
Under pressure from the government, Purdue Pharma last year debuted a new OxyContin pill formula that "squishes" instead of crumbling when someone tries to crush it.
But Zogenix, whose drug is time-released but crushable, says there is not enough evidence to show that such tamper-resistant reformulations thwart abuse.
"Provided sufficient effort, all formulations currently available can be overcome," Zogenix said in a written response to questions by The Associated Press.
At a conference for investors New York on Nov. 29, Zogenix chief executive Roger Hawley said the FDA was not pressuring Zogenix to put an abuse deterrent in Zohydro.
"We would certainly consider later launching an abuse-deterrent form, but right now we believe the priority of safer hydrocodone -- that is, without acetaminophen -- is a key priority for the FDA," Hawley said.
FDA spokeswoman Erica Jefferson said the agency would not comment on its discussions with drug companies, citing the need to protect trade secrets.
Drug control advocates say they're worried the U.S. government is too lax about controlling addictive pain medications. The United States consumes 99 percent of the world's hydrocodone and 83 percent of its oxycodone, according to a 2008 study by the International Narcotics Control Board.
One 41-year-old loophole in particular has fed the current problem with hydrocodone abuse, critics say. The federal Controlled Substances Act, passed in 1970, puts fewer controls on combination pills containing hydrocodone and another painkiller than it does on the equivalent oxycodone products.
A Vicodin prescription can be refilled five times, for example, while a Percocet prescription can only be filled once.
The Drug Enforcement Administration and Food and Drug Administration have been studying whether to close this loophole since 1999 but have made no decision. Congress is now considering a bill that would force the agencies to tighten the controls.
"This is a problem that is fundamentally an oversupply problem," said Jackson, the drug-control advocate. "The FDA has kind of opened the floodgates, and they refuse to recognize the mistakes made in the past."
Pure hydrocodone falls into the stricter drug-control category than hydrocodone-acetaminophen medications, meaning patients would have to go to their doctors for a new prescription each time they needed more pills. But Jackson said that's no guarantee against abuse, noting that dozens of unscrupulous doctors have been caught churning out prescriptions in so-called "pill mills."
The Drug Enforcement Administration, which enforces controls on medicines along with the FDA, said it could not comment on drugs that have not yet been approved for sale.
However, Zogenix has acknowledged the abuse issue could become a liability.
"Illicit use and abuse of hydrocodone is well documented," it said in a filing with the Securities and Exchange Commission in September. "Thus, the regulatory approval process and the marketing of Zohydro may generate public controversy that may adversely affect regulatory approval and market acceptance of Zohydro."
Copyright 2011 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.
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