By: Scott Gottlieb, M.D.
As Commissioner, my highest initial priority is to take immediate steps to reduce the scope of the epidemic of opioid addiction. I believe the Food and Drug Administration continues to have an important role to play in addressing this crisis, particularly when it comes to reducing the number of new cases of addiction.
Today, I sent an email to all of my colleagues at FDA, sharing with them the first steps I plan to take to better achieve this public health goal. With this, my first post to the FDA Voice blog, I also wanted to share my plans with you.
I believe it is within the scope of FDA’s regulatory tools – and our societal obligations – to take whatever steps we can, under our existing legal authorities, to ensure that exposure to opioids is occurring under only appropriate clinical circumstances, and for appropriate patients.
Patients must be prescribed opioids only for durations of treatment that closely match their clinical circumstances and that don’t expose them unnecessarily to prolonged use, which increases the risk of opioid addiction. Moreover, as FDA does in other contexts in our regulatory portfolio, we need to consider the broader public health implications of opioid use. We need to consider both the individual and the societal consequences.
While there has been a lot of good work done by FDA to date, and many people are working hard on this problem, I have asked my FDA colleagues to see what additional, more forceful steps we might take.
As a first step, I am establishing an Opioid Policy Steering Committee that will bring together some of the agency’s most senior career leaders to explore and develop additional tools or strategies FDA can use to confront this crisis.
I have asked the Steering Committee to consider three important questions. However, the Committee will have a broad mandate to consider whatever additional questions FDA should be seeking to answer. The Committee will solicit input, and engage the public. I want the Committee to go in whatever direction the scientific and public health considerations leads, as FDA works to further its mandate to confront the crisis of opioid addiction.
The initial questions I have tasked the Steering Committee to answer are:
- Are there circumstances under which FDA should require some form of mandatory education for health care professionals, to make certain that prescribing doctors are properly informed about appropriate prescribing recommendations, understand how to identify the risk of abuse in individual patients, and know how to get addicted patients into treatment?
- Should FDA take additional steps, under our risk management authorities, to make sure that the number of opioid doses that an individual patient can be prescribed is more closely tailored to the medical indication? For example, only a few situations require a 30-day supply. In those cases, we want to make sure patients have what they need. But there are plenty of situations where the best prescription is a two- or three-day course of treatment. So, are there things FDA can do to make sure that the dispensing of opioids more consistently reflects the clinical circumstances? This might require FDA to work more closely with provider groups to develop standards for prescribing opioids in different clinical settings.
- Is FDA using the proper policy framework to adequately consider the risk of abuse and misuse as part of the drug review process for the approval of these medicines? Are we doing enough when we evaluate new opioid drugs for market authorization, and do we need additional policies in this area?
These are just some of the questions I will be asking this new Steering Committee to consider right away, given the scope of the emergency we face. In the coming days, I’ll continue to work closely with the senior leadership of FDA. I want to know what other important ideas my colleagues at FDA may have, so that we can lean even further into this problem, using our full authorities to work toward reducing the scope of this epidemic.
Despite the efforts of FDA and many other public health agencies, the scope of the epidemic continues to grow, and the human and economic costs are staggering. According to data from CDC and SAMHSA, nearly 2 million Americans abused or were dependent on prescription opioids in 2014, and more than 1,000 people are treated in emergency departments each day due to misusing prescription opioids.
Opioid overdose deaths involving prescription opioids have quadrupled since 1999. In 2015, opioids were involved in the deaths of 33,091 people in the United States. Most of these deaths – more than 22,000 (about 62 people per day) – involved prescription opioids.
We know that the majority of people who eventually become addicted to opioids are exposed first to prescription opioids. One recent study found that in a sample of heroin users in treatment for opioid addiction, 75% of those who began abusing opioids in the 2000s started with prescription opioid products.
This March, a study published in CDC’s Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report, found that opioid-naïve patients who fill a prescription for a one-day supply of opioids face a 6% risk of continuing their use of opioids for more than one year. This study also found that the longer a person’s first exposure to opioids, the greater the risk that he or she will continue using opioids after one, or even three years. For example, when a person’s first exposure to opioids increases from one day to 30 days, that person’s likelihood of continuing to use opioids after one year increases from 6% to about 35%.
Working together, we need to do all we can to get ahead of this crisis. That’s why we’ll also be soliciting public input, through various forums, on what additional steps FDA should consider. I look forward to working closely with my FDA colleagues as we quickly move forward, capitalizing on good work that has already been done, and expanding those efforts in novel directions. I will keep you updated on our work as we continue to confront this epidemic.
Scott Gottlieb, M.D., is Commissioner of the U.S. Food and Drug Administration
Follow Commissioner Gottlieb on Twitter @SGottliebFDA