Media Bias Against Suboxone

First Posted 2.8.2014

After Philip Seymour Hoffman’s death, I anticipated a flood of articles describing the ineffectiveness of non-medication treatments for opioid dependence.  I assumed the media would finally report on the need for long-term treatment of a long-term illness.  Instead we read more articles describing Suboxone (i.e. buprenorphine) as a ‘bad drug’, since Hoffman may have used the drug to reduce withdrawal between heroin binges.

Taking buprenorphine within a few days of using heroin blocks most of heroin’s effects and makes overdose much less likely– a fact rarely reported.  Out of about 400,000 overdose deaths over the past ten years, only 400 deaths included buprenorphine as one drug in the fatal mix– a stunning statistic that calls out for more life-sustaining buprenorphine treatment, not less.  In most of those cases, death would not occurred had there been more buprenorphine in the victim’s bloodstream.

Vivitrol is the brand name for a monthly, injectable form of naltrexone that appeals to a superficial approach to opioid dependence.  Naltrexone advocates focus on the months of abstinence when patients are taking the medication, often during forced compliance mandated by drug courts. Rarely questioned is the long-term effectiveness (or lack thereof) of naltrexone for reducing the morbidity and mortality of opioid dependence.

The uncritical acceptance of naltrexone by some prescribers begs some important questions.  If short-term use of a treatment causes an increase in long-term mortality, is the treatment ethical?  If patients mandated to receive a course of treatment only relapse and reoffend a year later, is the treatment an efficient use of resources?

Naltrexone appeals to the same people who push abstinence programs that have long-term success rates well below 10%.  Current abstinence treatments often center around programs developed in the 1920′s, that ignore the advances in our understanding of neuroscience and addiction since that era.  Abstinence programs blame failures on patients rather than recognizing failed treatment approaches. The case of Philip Seymour Hoffman should call out for a new paradigm, where patients are treated with medication that works and continues to work over the years of a person’s life.

Naltrexone is a ‘blocker’—a great thing for the anti-drug attitudes in all of us.  But does it matter that people treated with naltrexone die from overdose at a rate 7-fold higher than people on methadone?   Proponents of naltrexone ignore the long-term nature of opioid dependence.  And whether naltrexone is administered by shot or by tablet, patients inevitably stop taking it.  The ‘naltrexone paradigm’ calls for only 6-12 months on the medication, and many patients drop out even sooner, when their probation ends.

Many patients learn from the internet or elsewhere that naltrexone increases their sensitivity to heroin, a ‘reverse tolerance’ effect that makes relapse impossible to resist. The same hypersensitivity causes greater risk of death, making ‘one last time’ a self-fulfilling prophecy.

On the other hand, headlines that decry ‘abuse of buprenorphine’ greatly exceed true harm from buprenorphine. Most buprenorphine abuse consists of self-treatment by addicts who have no access to the medication, because of limits on patient enrollment and regulations that discourage physicians from prescribing the medication.   ‘Abuse’ of buprenorphine is far more likely to prevent overdose than to cause harm.  Even one dose of 8 mg buprenorphine prevents death for several days by blocking opioid receptors.

Given the safety of buprenorphine, it is hard to justify the use of temporizing measures or ineffective step treatments.  Addiction deserves proper medical treatment—not superficial approaches that delay death for a year or so.