Tuesday, March 30, 2004 | 9:03 a.m.
Local doctors who treat chronic pain say the drugs they prescribe, opiates such as OxyContin, are getting a bad reputation they don't deserve.
About 40 doctors will meet tonight with state Board of Pharmacy and federal Drug Enforcement Administration representatives at Panevino Ristorante, 246 Via Antonio Ave., to discuss prescription drug fraud.
Dr. Michael Fishell, the panel's host, said Monday that prescription pain medications help far more people than they hurt and are far safer than many other medicines.
"What hurts patients is this: They turn on the TV every night and see yet another Hollywood star checking themselves into rehab for Lortab," a brand name for the drug hydrocodone, Fishell said.
"But opiates are some of the safest prescription medications we write (prescriptions) for. There are blood-pressure medications that are much more dangerous."
About 15,000 to 20,000 Americans die each year from over-the-counter pain medicines such as aspirin, and 80,000 more are nearly killed, Fishell said.
But to drug-enforcement officials, prescription opiates are an increasingly lethal scourge. Last year, radio host Rush Limbaugh admitted abusing OxyContin, a brand name for oxycodone.
In Henderson last August, a former police officer abducted his doctor at gunpoint and forced him to write hydrocodone prescriptions. The man was shot and killed by police outside a Walgreens store.
In 1997 Nevada instituted an electronic database that tracks about 3 million prescriptions.
National drug czar John Walters, visiting Las Vegas earlier this month, praised the state for its efforts, saying prescription pharmaceuticals were "second only to marijuana in the role they play in the drug problem."
Walters said abuse of pain killers caused 153 deaths in Las Vegas in 2001.
Fishell, who is one of eight doctors in the area certified in the sub-specialty of pain management, said the problem has been sensationalized. In fact, he said, doctors and pharmacists team up to make sure that few bad prescriptions actually get filled.
But patients who legitimately need narcotic pain killers are hurt by the perception that the pills are evil, Fishell said.
"Because of society's view of these medications, people feel dirty when they take these medications" and are sometimes even afraid to do so, Fishell said.
People should remember that prescription narcotics are neither totally harmless nor totally destructive, said Lt. Matt Alberto of the Investigation Division of the Nevada Department of Public Safety.
"There are a lot of different ways to divert lawful prescription drugs to unlawful purposes," he said.