Vol. 214 June 1, 2019 JUULING AND SCHOOLING

June 1, 2019

“Nicotine addiction begins when most tobacco users are teenagers, so let’s call this what it really is: a pediatric disease.”
-David Kessler, MD. Commissioner of FDA, 1995

 


When I was a young parent my kids’ souls were threatened by the dangers of  “sex, drugs, and rock ‘n roll”. THEIR kids are facing a new triple threat, “marijuana, video games, and vaping”. Vaping? (pronounced with a long ”a”) Really? (pronounced with a short “a”)

How can inhaling flavored water vapor with either no or just a touch of nicotine be dangerous? Let Jonathan Winickoff, MD, MPH, Professor of Pediatrics at Harvard Medical School and Director of the MGH Tobacco Research Treatment Center list the reasons:

First of all, there is no water in vaping solutions. Vaping is NOT inhaling water vapor. It is inhaling particulate matter of numerous chemical compounds in mostly propylene glycol and glycerin. When heated these compounds degrade to formaldehyde. The vapor also contains carcinogenic organic and inorganic chemicals, cytotoxic nano-sized metallic particles from the heater coil, silicates (like in sand), and ALWAYS nicotine. All vaping solutions contain nicotine despite the label that says “contains no nicotine”, or even more cleverly “contains no nicotine tar”, which means of course “no tar”. Currently there are no FDA regulations about labeling vaping solutions. Companies can label and market anyway they wish without any accountability.

Vaping solutions are flavored to lure teens into using because teen age vaping does lead to dependency on nicotine and a significant percentage of teenage vapers go on to smoking cigarettes (“combustible tobacco”). This assures a continued revenue stream for tobacco companies. Mint, menthol, and mango are apparently the favorite vaping flavors (gives new meaning to “3M” doesn’t it). Flavors in cigarettes were banned by federal law in 2009 except for “menthol and mint”, but the federal ban specifically did not apply to e-cigarettes. There are over 8,000 vaping flavors available.

Juul (jewel) is the most successful vaping company owning about 75% of the market. Juul is so successful that it has become a verb, as in “Do you Juul?, Lets Juul.”

A Juul pod of vaping solution contains about 200 “hits” or puffs which is the equivalent of a pack of 20 cigarettes. Pods are used in devices that previously looked like cigarettes, hence the term e-cigarette, but now vaping devices can look like pens, superhero figures, a miniature coke can, and, most  commonly, a computer thumb drive. One middle school kid laughed at his father’s confusion by saying, “We don’t use thumbdrives any more. Every thing is in the Cloud. If you see a kid with a thumb drive, he is vaping.”

Taking 300-400 hits a day is common. Unfortunately taking an occasional hit as an “experimental rite of passage” can progress to increased use and an unrecognized dependency. JuuLing periodically on the week ends can lead to withdrawal symptoms of anxiety, distraction, and increased body movements on non-use school days. Those are the same symptoms of ADHD.

A popular device, a Sourin Drop, is available in many different colors and is small enough to hold (“conceal”) in the palm of your hand/ It is a refillable device (unlike a JuuL pod which you buy pre-filled) that lets you mix flavored vaping solution and marijuana (THC) so that they can be inhaled together as a mixture.

Juuls are much easier to use than cigarettes to use; you don’t need a match, there is very little aroma, there is no butt to get rid off, they can be used in NO SMOKING zones, and there is certainly no tell-tale stain on your fingers.

A pod cost about $4 and can be bought online easily without proof of age despite the requirement to be over 18.. Needham, MA was the first town in America to ban sales to those under 21, and Hawaii was the first to establish a state-wide ban. Fourteen states have now followed Newton’s example and prohibit stores from selling vaping solutions to those under 21.

Tobacco companies are investing heavily in e-cigarettes. They know that the younger a person is when nicotine is introduced the more likely they will become a life-time tobacco user. They deliberately, purposefully, and relentlessly market vaping to young people. Nearly 40% of high schoolers and nearly 15% of middle schoolers have vaped at “least once”. Use of vaping in places where smoking is prohibited also helps produce a second income stream for tobacco companies.

A lot of this “threat-to-teen-agers-talk” does sound like old hat to some of us old guys , but vaping has the potential of some serious unattended future consequences for our youths. Most of us did survive the dangers of sex, drugs, and rock’n roll after all, and what will be the inevitable triple threat for future teen agers : “space dust, AI simulations (‘feelies’), and audio-visual implants?”

Action plan:

  1. Call your Massachusetts statehouse representative to support the passage of H. 1902 which bans the sale of “all flavored tobacco products” in Massachusetts.
  2. Lobby in your own town to ban the sale of flavored tobacco products to anyone under 21 years of age.
  3. Let your kids and grandkids read this blog.
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Vol. 205 January 1, 2019 Hemp, MJ, THC, and CBD . . . Wha.a.a.a?

December 31, 2018

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Hemp and marijuana are both cannabis plants. 

But they are not the same.

There are 80 different cannabinoid compounds in cannabis plants. THC and CBD are the largest in volume. Both hemp and MJ have THC (the chemical that gives you the high) and CBD (the chemical that does not); but in vastly different amounts.  Hemp products have only 0.3% THC.  Marijuana contains from 5% to 30% THC. The CBD in MJ actually regulates (moderates) the effect of THC, produces no euphoria, and is non-addictive.

The Kentucky Supreme Court decided years ago that marijuana and hemp were the same. Woody Harrelson in 1996 was charged with “illegal possession of marijuana” in Kentucky when he announced that he had “planted 4 hemp seeds.” Four years later a Lee County jury acquitted him of that charge. The jury knew that marijuana and hemp were not the same. Hemp has about 25,000 different manufacturing uses and was one of Kentucky’s leading crops until the Marijuana Tax Act of 1937 shut down production. 

Both MJ and hemp are touted to help treat medical illnesses. Some studies show that CBD may be effective in selected medical illness. Our medical knowledge about CBD’s ability to “enhance wellness” is about at the same stage as our scientific understanding of probiotics. Neither seems to do any harm, but there are few studies that indicate they provide any real benefit.

The few studies of medical marijuana have used THC in pill form. Most promoters of medical marijuana believe that the whole marijuana product has to be smoked or ingested to get any benefit. Nobody smokes marijuana for its CBD. Interestingly, marijuana does NOT treat glaucoma. It turns out that the early studies suggesting that were too small and not controlled enough to support that conclusion.

Medical marijuana is now legal in 33 states and D.C.. Hemp products have been legal in all 50 states for some years.

It is the “hemp-derived” CBD oil that is legal and available on Amazon, at Target, or at your local gift and wellness store as one of 150 “wellness” CBD products derived from hemp. Any “marijuana-derived” CBD product carries all the baggage of current marijuana laws. Hence, a good deal of confusion.

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“Hemp-derived” CBD was a $591 million(M) dollar business in the U.S. this year. With the 2018 Federal Farm Act (spear headed by Mitch McConnell, R- Ky) that lifts decades-long U.S. prohibition of hemp cultivation on January 1, 2019 (today), the U.S. hemp industry is predicted to grow to $22 billion(B) by 2022.

The largest marijuana-producing company in Canada is salivating (Hey, remember that the U.S. Supreme Court has ruled that corporations are persons, so why can’t they salivate?) about going into the distribution of hemp-derived CBD-infused “sports” beverages in the U.S.  Vogue magazine calls CBD wellness products one of the top 10 trends in 2018.

Because of severe federal restrictions on research on marijuana there is little reliable scientific data about its medical benefits.  What few studies there are or not always clear about what is actually being tested; THC, CBD, or the other 80 cannabinoids. So there is ample room for scientific and public discussion about the relative medical benefits of THC, CBD, hemp seeds, hemp oil, or other compounds in marijuana and hemp. The lack of real data about relative benefits and risks will continue to allow proponents of one product to shill louder than the others for the consumer’s dollar.

It is helpful to remember that this lack of knowledge about marijuana is such that a physician can NOT write an actual  prescription for it. A physician’s prescription for any medication has to designate the medication’s name, dose, form, and instructions for frequency and duration of use. There is no data to allow the physician to know how to do that for marijuana. Selective physicians can only certify a person as eligible for medical marijuana use. The “patient”  then takes the certificate (not a prescription) to the marijuana store and buys the type, the form, and the dose of the substance he or she chooses.  How does the user know what to buy? By word of mouth, advice from the store keeper, and good old trial and error. Hardly deserves the term “medical use”, does it?


Vol. 173 July 1, 2017 Bugs and Drugs

July 1, 2017

 

“Eat dirt, and thrive”

 

Since Fleming discovered a mold that produced penicillin which killed Streptococcus bacteria, scientists for decades have been mining soil as a source of new antibiotics. There are so many bacteria competing for nutrients in the dirt that some bacteria will produce toxins to kill their neighbors. The current belief is that soil extraction for new antibiotics has been going on for so long that soil is about tapped out as a source for novel ones.

Antibiotics kill bacteria by attacking their cell walls. Bacteria develop “resistance” to antibiotics with changes in their cell walls that resist the medicinal attack. Individual bacteria cells can’t change their cell walls, but the population of pathogen bacteria as a whole, the “microbiome”, can become “resistant” as the bacteria cells replicate again and again. When only the bacteria which have mutated to ones with a different “resistant” wall remain, the bacteria has become “resistant” to the antibiotic. Your body does not become “resistant”, the bacteria community does..

Viruses have no cell walls, and that is why antibiotics don’t work on viruses, like the ones causing the common cold. Anti-viral medicines against the flu and HIV work by attacking the internal functions of the virus. Some anti-viral medicines attack the virus DNA, others attack the virus RNA, and others attack intracellular proteins or enzymes necessary for virus replication.

Scientists at Rutgers have recently described a whole new class of antibiotics extracted from soil (Italian soil to be exact, if you think that’s important) that don’t work by attacking the cell wall. The new compound inhibits an internal protein, a polymerase, in the bacteria which is necessary for the bacteria to survive. The compound is 10 times less likely to trigger a mutation that leads to drug resistance than current antibiotics. Also it can kill dormant, non-replicating bacteria much better than current antibiotics. Similar compounds that attack polymerases has been successful in treating viruses like Hepatitis C and HIV, but this is the first example of a successful antibacterial effect. It will send many scienticists looking for new antibiotics back to the dirt.

Could this just be another reason to eat dirt? Eating dirt, or geophagia, is a recognized way for animals, and some humans in special situations, to obtain minerals. Pica , eating non-food substances, in a child can indicate that the child is iron deficient or anemic. Pregnant women in Africa are known to eat dirt to enrich their stores of calcium for the fetus. Parrots, bats, and some pregnant women have been observed eating soil with a high clay content to help with gastrointestinal distress. Since dirt can contain lead and other toxins, most people are advised to just take a swig of Kaopectate.

Why not just skip the dirt and go right for the pure mixture of bacteria, a probiotic? In fact, the evidence for the benefits of the use of probiotics is mixed. The use of probiotics has not been dramatically positive in treating diarrhea, eczema, and preventing the side effects of antibiotics. True that probiotics have no significant side effects (the FDA has labeled them as “safe”), but some researchers are concerned that overuse may have deleterious effects on our normal gut bacterial flora.

There are approximately 100 Trillion (that is a “T”) bacteria in our gut. They have been officially awarded recognition as the “gut microbiome”. It is a hot research topic focussing on its roles in digestion, metabolism, immunity, dementia, and even autism. Fecal transplant therapy  (infusion of a solution of healthy donor feces through a nasogastric tube) repopulates the intestine with “good” bacteria as treatment for certain diseases caused by “bad” bacteria (Clostridium difficle) (1) More recently, the dscription of a “breast microbiome” in association with some breast cancers is spurring research into using bacteria as biomarkers in screening for breast cancer.

” The Hidden Half of Nature”, published in 2008, tells a positive story of a couple changing their lives by enriching their garden soil with bacteria-heavy materials while enriching the bacteria of their own intestines by “eating healthy”. One of the authors summed up their approach as: “Mulch your soil, inside and out”.

  1. N Engl J Med 2013; 368:407-415, January 31, 2013

Vol. 171 May 15, 2017 Medical Updates (Real News)

May 15, 2017

 

“The Only Thing That Is Constant Is Change -”― Heraclitus

 

 


Those TV ads work … for the drug companies.
A study of the effectiveness of TV ads (Direct-to-Consumer Advertising or DTCA) for prescribed testosterone supplements (no effectiveness in men without endocrine disease) in 75 regional markets from 2009 to 2013 showed that the addition of ONE TV ad per household per month for 4 years was associated with an increase in new blood tests of testosterone level, new prescriptions with blood level testing, and new prescriptions without any blood level testing. About 2% of the middle-aged men in this study of 17 million men received a testosterone prescription. (JAMA,Mar 21, 2017)

In other news, the British Medical Journal published a study of over 900,000 men which showed that those taking testosterone were 63% more likely to develop potentially fatal blood clots in the legs or lungs during the first six months of taking it. (BMJ, Nov. 13, 2016)

Vitamin D gets an “F”.
Vitamin D supplements became very much in vogue when some studies suggested that people with low blood levels had a higher risk of cardiovascular disease. BUT, in New Zealand 2500 adults were given 1000 units of vitamin D once a month and a matched group of 2500 were given placebo. The vitamin D blood level doubled in the supplemented adults, but at the end of 3 years both groups had identical rates of adverse cardiovascular events (12%). (JAMA Cardiol Apr 5, 2017)

PSA testing -“D” or “C”? It depends.
In 2012 the U.S. Preventative Services Task Force (USPSTF) gave the PSA blood test screening for prostate cancer a “D” – (not recommended) because of false positives leading to unnecessary procedures and treatment, and the fact that PSA screening prevented less than 1 prostate cancer-related death per 1000 men screened.

In 2017 the USPSTF is upgrading that “D” to a “C” (maybe a small benefit) but only for men aged 55-69. (Dare we call it a “gentlemen’s C” ?) The “D” remains for those over 70. This upgrade for the younger men is based mostly on the emergence of the “active surveillance” option to immediate surgery or radiation for positive PSA tests and biopsy. The USPSTF strongly recommends that physicians 1) explain all the risks and benefits of PSA testing to men from 55-69, 2) be aware of the patient’s “values and preferences”, and 3) practice effective “joint decision-making” with the patient. (J Watch General Medicine May 15, 2017)

In other news, a Michigan study of 431 men with localized prostate cancer discovered by PSA testing and confirmed by biopsy who opted for “active surveillance” rather than immediate surgery or radiation showed that only 31% actually followed the complete “active surveillance” protocol. (PSA testing every 6 months and annual repeat biopsy.) Another 31% complied with just the PSA test repeats, but not the biopsy. 22% did neither repeat PSA tests nor biopsy. Outcomes were not measured in this study, (J Urol Mar 2017)

Aspirin may get a third “A”
Aspirin is well-known to relieve pain, reduce inflammation, reduce fever, and reduce blood clotting. It does that by inhibiting the production of prostaglandins, a hormone-like substance in play in all those conditions. In 2000 scientists discovered that aspirin also increases our production of resolvins which also reduce our inflammatory response. We make resolvins from Omega-3 fatty acid precursors (hence the contemporary popularity of fish oil).

Investigators are very interested in a newly defined, third effect of aspirin which is unrelated to its role in anti-inflammation – aspirin’s interference in the ability of cancer cells to metastasize. Cancer cells apparently need to be coated with clumps of platelets in order to survive their trip through the blood stream to distal sites. In mice, aspirin’s anti-platelet action (the “reducing blood clots” function) has been found to interfere with platelet clumping around the cancer cell and successful migration of the cancer cells through blood vessels is inhibited. (Scientific American May 2017)

Trying to avoid sugary beverages? Don’t jump to diet soda.
A 10 year study monitoring 4000 people without diabetes for strokes and cognitive decline found that people who drank diet soda every day were three times more likely to develop strokes and dementia. In a separate study people who drank more juices and more sugar-sweetened soda than others were more likely to have poorer memory and smaller brains on MRI imaging than the other people. The researchers state clearly that this is not a cause and effect situation, just an “association”. (Stroke April 24, 2017)
“More research is needed.” Of course.
“Water is best.”

Bilingual brains remember their first language, even when they can’t speak it!
Korean-born adults who were adopted by Dutch families before the age of six and who did not speak nor understand Korean were better at distinguishing between the sound contrasts of the Korean language and could pronounce the Korean sounds much better than those Dutch adults who had no exposure to the Korean language as children. This better discrimination of sounds is not genetically based because numerous studies have shown that all infants are capable of reproducing all the sounds of all languages. “Remarkably, what we learn before we can even speak stays with us for decades.” (Duh!) (Royal Society Open Science, Mar 2017)

No federal money to study pistols or pot.
According to David Hemenway, Professor of Health Policy, Harvard School of Public Health, an average of 300 people get shot in the U.S. each day. One-third of them die. Twenty years ago the CDC funded about $2.6 million a year (“a small amount”) for firearms research. Now that funding is ZERO. Since 2006 Congress has pprohibited the CDC from gathering any gun-related statistics and developing a gun-related data base, but there is apparently no formal, official prohibition for funding gun-issue research,; just the CDC’s desire to “stay out of congressional crosshairs”.

NIH apparently has the same reticence. In the past 40 years over 486 NIH grants have been awarded in the areas of cholera, diphtheria, polio, and rabies which have caused 2000 deaths in the U.S. Over the same 40 years while 4 million people were shot in the U.S. , NIH has awarded 3 gun-issue research awards. (Note: this period of time is during the relatively scientific-friendly Clinton, Bush, and Obama administrations .)

Marijuana is still classified by the FDA and the DEA as a Schedule I substance which prevents any clinical trial or study of its medicinal benefits. Medicinal marijuana must have FDA required “drug development” studies to get off Schedule I, and those studies are virtually impossible while it is on Schedule I. (Note: current Attorney General Jeff Sessions said in April 2016: “Good people don’t smoke marijuana”) (Scientific American May 2017)


Vol. 146 April 15, 2016 The Bathroom Bill and Another Unintended consequence

April 15, 2016

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“Bathroom Bill passes the House and goes to the Senate next month.
Governor Baker still on the fence.”

Gender politics are currently heating up in North Carolina, Massachusetts, and other states about proposed bills banning discrimination against transgender people “in public accommodations”. Many states have already passed laws or issued Executive Orders banning discrimination against transgender people in government and other jobs. The lightening rod in these new bills is the clause allowing transgender people to use the public restroom appropriate for what “they look like”.  This effort to “ban transgender discrimination in all public accommodations” has been succinctly reframed as “which restroom are they allowed to use”, hence the name “bathroom bill”.  Groups in favor of letting transgender people use the bathroom “that matches how they look” advocate passionately for the rights of transgender people. Opponents raise the specter of men masquerading as women assaulting women in public bathrooms. If it weren’t for the strong emotions swirling throughout this largely symbolic conflict these discussions might be another source of “comic relief” in this election season.

Screen Shot 2016-04-15 at 10.50.35 AMAs previously blogged  different kinds of gender-benders can look the same.  These proposed laws will set rules based on how people LOOK, but transgender people define themselves by how they think. “Transvestites, transexuals, and cross-dressers can be defined by who they go to bed WITH. Transgender people are defined by who they go to bed AS.”

These bills mark our continuing evolution of trying to deal with the changing views of gender identification. In 2014 ABC News found 58 possible gender identifications allowed by Facebook, though many of them are just slight variations of the same term; ex: “Male to Female” and “MTF”, “Cisman” and “Cisgender Man”. The list also includes “Other” and “Two Spirit”.  In 2015 California colleges in response to a 2011 California law started giving 6 choices for voluntary gender identification on student applications: “male; female; trans male/trans man; trans female/trans woman; gender queer/gender non-conforming; and different identity.”   They also added a question asking the student to voluntarily identify their sexual orientation. All of this apparently for state government data collection purposes, and, perhaps, to help make appropriate roommate assignments. The California colleges have stated repeatedly that the new information does not enter into the admission decision process itself. 

Not surprisingly a demand on a number of college campuses has risen for more “gender neutral” restrooms as one logical solution to this gender conundrum.. In Europe, and in select small public facilities in the U.S., they are  called “Unisex” restrooms. If you are wondering how you could identify such a facility, you might just look for this sign.:gender neutral symbolwpid-167_4817_6960

UnCHOF
My most recent nomination to the Unintended Consequence Hall of Fame (UnCHOF) goes to the Novartis pharmaceutical company. They make Voltaren (diclofenac) a non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drug commonly used  for joint stiffness and pain when simple Advil doesn’t help. It has been associated with a small risk of cardiac toxicity in humans.

Years ago farmers in India started giving diclofenac to their aging, limping, stiff cows in hopes of getting another year or two of use out of them. When the cows died their carcasses were left in the fields as was the custom in India and millions of vultures quickly reduced them to piles of bones. The vultures of India have been providing this necessary and efficient service for centuries.  But, the vultures ingested the diclofenac remaining in the cow carcasses, and it so happens that vultures lack the enzyme that metabolizes diclofenac. The rising blood levels of the drug were toxic to their kidneys.  Millions of vultures in India and Pakistan, as in ALL of them, had died by 2008 of renal failure. “Today there are many young Indians who have never seen a vulture.” (1)

When the “vulture clean-up service” died out the cow carcasses were trucked away to dumps. Feral dogs found the dumped carcasses to be a ready source of food, and the feral dog population in India exploded. Recently there have been more frequent sightings of leopards, yes leopards, in some Indian urban areas. The leopards are there to eat the dogs.

So, veterinarian use of a very common non-steroidal drug consumed by millions of humans has in India killed off a whole species and has produced a new type of urban danger, hungry leopards!  QED

References:
1. A River Runs Again; India’s Natural World in Crisis;  by Meera Subramanian, 2015


Vol. 140 January 15, 2016 A Review of 2015 Hubslist Blogs

January 15, 2016

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Click on the date to see the full blog

 

January 1 – 5 out of 10 of my resolutions were “kept”. You guess which ones.

January 15 – 6 reasons why patients are non-compliant , excuse me, “non-adherent”- the new PC term, with their medications.

February 1 – incidence of sudden death while watching the Super Bowl (Patriot fans probably don’t have to worry about that THIS year.)

February 15 – some myths revealed about cholesterol in your diet, global warming, measles vaccination rates, herbal supplements, and Dr. Oz, vendor of snake oil(s).

March 1 – 8 new causes of death caused by cigarette smoking added to the previously identified 12; a total of 20.

April 1 – Athena Health purchases MySpace which raises more concerns about privacy of health care data (April Fools edition).

April 15 – what does a “board certified physician” mean, and what does it have to do with Presidential candidates (Rand Paul)?

May 1 – physicians’ prognoses are often too optimistic for the same reasons patients’ are.

May 15 – E-cigarettes open new avenues for adolescent use of marijuana and synthetic cannabinoids (“bath salts”).

June 1 – annual review of sunscreens and bug repellents plus less universities providing student access to tanning booths.

June 15 – new forensic techniques of identifying individuals by bacterial, viral, and DNA “fingerprints”.

July 1 – 6 positive access outcomes and 4 positive health care delivery outcomes of Obamacare at 5 years of age.

July 15 – dangers of synthetic cannabinoids (attn: Chandler Jones?) and the minimal (“pending”) review of sunscreens by FDA.

August 1 – two websites with the best “symptom diagnosis” track record for helpfulness, and the one that is the worst.

August 15 – [ family vacation in a lighthouse without electricity or running water]
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September 1 – why new drugs cost so much, no “gay gene” identified yet, and the myths of low testosterone, chronic Lyme, and  8 glasses of water a day.

September 15 – The health benefits of our “microbiome” and the “microbiome” of the New York City subway.

October 1 – the misleading, untruthful attacks on Planned Parenthood.

October 15 – the scope and magnitude of adverse effects of dietary supplements.

November 1 – transgender, transsexual, transvestite, and hermaphrodite, oh my!

November 15 – toddlers shooting people and other “norms” of gun deaths – “By Degrees“.

December 1 – changing advice about what NOT to eat during the holidays.

December 15 – the benefits of research using fetal tissue, short history of political attacks on Planned Parenthood, and why if you are NOT fat and live a long life you should thank your parents.

HAPPY NEW YEAR


Vol. 139 January 1, 2016 HEROIN: Cape Cod, USA

January 1, 2016

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A HBO documentary shown on December 28, 2015

 As a pediatrician and a parent I found this moving documentary of eight white, middle class heroin addict kids from stable families on Cape Cod to be very disconcerting. It was brutally honest with several scenes of addicts preparing and injecting heroin. The repetitive, “almost-expected”, relapses after detox, and the seemingly casual acceptance of inevitable drug deaths of other addicts set a tone of hopelessness. The onset of addiction in half of these addicts followed standard treatment with opioids for post-accident or post-surgical pain. 30-day detox programs, despite their noble intent, were depicted as mostly fruitless in the long run, like spitting in the ocean. (None of the eight addicts appeared to be enrolled in a heroin-replacement program – Suboxone or methadone) The recognition by the addicts that their craving drove them into behavior they themselves detested confirmed that insight is not enough.

 One addict said that “one dose of heroin was all that was needed to get you addicted”, but NIH statistics suggest that 23% of first heroin users become addicts. Even so, those one-in-four odds are worse than the odds of Russian roulette with a six-shot revolver! One could consider appropriate opioid treatment for post-surgery pain as a “screening test” to find those one-in-four addicts!

For the past decade physicians have been told that the patient should direct pain control. “How bad is your pain on a scale of 1 to 10?” Hospitals and doctors were, and are still, graded on their ability to reduce patient-reported pain quickly. Many of us physicians remember the pain control conferences that basically told us “you are not giving enough”. Perhaps that mind set contributed to the current easy access to opioids.

The Massachusetts Medical Society just promulgated lengthy opioid therapy guidelines consisting of 11 statements for acute care and 16 statements for chronic treatment (over 60 days). The guidelines are sprinkled with words like “function and pain”, “quality of life”, “short-term trial”, “minimum dosage”, “partial-fill prescriptions”, “low-dose sequential prescription”, and “useful consultation with a specialist or a second opinion”. Treatment of cancer. hospice, palliative care, and hospital inpatients is exempt from the guidelines.

The simple patient pain scale of 1 to 10 has been trumped by 11-16 sentences. If you think that is an overstatement then consider these words in the new guidelines,  “The guidelines will provide valuable guidance to physicians [mostly primary care] in their practices and as evidence of best practices and to the Board [of Registration in Medicine] in its responses to patient complaints, accusations of substandard care, or accusation of inappropriate prescribing.” [emphasis added].

The multiple pathways to addiction, its frequent appearance in several members of a family, and on functional MRIs similar active areas of the brain common to all types of addicts suggest a genetic basis of addiction. If that is true, than the cure for heroin addiction in the long run will depend on identification of the responsible genes and the development of drugs that will block or modify those specific genes.

In the short run, maybe we can do more in the U.S. to reduce the harms of addiction; overdose deaths, infectious diseases, and criminal behavior. One mother in the parents’ group eloquently summed up the need to “destigmatize” heroin addiction. ( “No one sent me casseroles when my son died of an overdose.”) To “destigmatize” addiction we will need to “decriminalize” it and treat it as a medical condition. Other countries (Switzerland 1994, Portugal 2000, Vancouver B.C. 2003, Netherlands 2009, Germany 2009, and U.K. 2009) have done that with both “heroin-replacement” and “heroin-assisted” treatment programs. Those programs have resulted in a reduction of overdose deaths and AIDS/Hep C infections WITHOUT increasing drug use.

According to the Boston Globe the “supervised injection site” in Vancouver (called “Insite”) has been shown by 30 peer-reviewed studies to have “saved thousands of lives, saved millions of dollars in both health care and public safety costs, reduced transmission of AIDS and hepatitis C, and promoted entrance into treatment without increasing drug use or drug-related crime”. (1) The Cato Institute studied the results of the successful Portugal program in 2009 and confirmed the same positive results. Critics remarked that such a model would not work in the U.S. because of our size, heterogeneity, and politics.

Isn’t that a shame?

References:
1. Boston Globe, December 27, 2015, K5, “Massachusetts needs safe injection sites”


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