Taking aim at “America’s most abused narcotic,” congressional lawmakers introduced legislation Wednesday that would place tighter restrictions on the painkiller hydrocodone, which is a key contributor to the nation’s prescription drug death epidemic.
Sold under the brand names Vicodin, Norco and Lortab, hydrocodone-based medications “are some of the most potent and addictive narcotics on the market,” U.S. Rep. Vern Buchanan, R-Fla., said in a statement.
Buchanan is one of four lawmakers – two Republicans and two Democrats – who introduced the Safe Prescribing Act of 2013. The unusual display of bipartisan support extended to more than 40 additional members of Congress from both parties who signed on as co-sponsors.
Prescription drugs – primarily narcotic painkillers such as hydrocodone – cause or contribute to more deaths than heroin and cocaine combined. As a result, drug fatalities have surpassed deaths from motor vehicle crashes, long the leading cause of accidental death in the United States. A Los Angeles Times analysis of 3,733 prescription drug-related fatalities in Southern California from 2006 through 2011 found that hydrocodone was involved in 945 of the deaths, more than any other prescription medication.
The proposed law would place medications containing hydrocodone in the same category as OxyContin, another opiate-based painkiller so potent and addictive that it’s sometimes referred to as synthetic heroin. If enacted, patients would be prescribed fewer hydrocodone pills at one time, and there would be more restrictions on refills. In addition, pharmacies would have to follow stricter procedures for handling and storing the drug.
The restrictions follow those recommended by a Food and Drug Administration advisory panel in January.
Buchanan and his colleagues – Rep. Edward J. Markey, D-Mass.; Sen. Joe Manchin III, D-W.Va.; and Sen. Mark Steven Kirk, R-Ill. – submitted endorsements for their legislation from police, prosecutors and medical experts who said that the potency and addictive nature of hydrocodone were underestimated when the drug was classified under the Controlled Substances Act in the 1970s.
The United States consumes 99 percent of the hydrocodone produced worldwide, and doctors write more prescriptions for it than for the leading antibiotic and hypertension medications.
Doctors have prescribed hydrocodone with few restrictions since it was introduced four decades ago. Because of the perception that it is less risky than other narcotic painkillers, it is widely prescribed by general practitioners and dentists.