Mills case shows peril of painkiller abuse


A prescription pain medication that Baltimore sportscaster Keith Mills has been accused of stealing from a neighbor is one that experts say is among the most commonly abused, and is the subject of more than a thousand lawsuits claiming its manufacturer failed to adequately warn patients and doctors of its addictive properties.

Mills, 48, was arrested Wednesday and charged with stealing OxyContin and Hydrocodone from a next-door neighbor who was undergoing cancer treatment. It was the third time he has been charged with drug-related offenses in the past two years, and came a week before completion of his probation stemming from an earlier Baltimore County drug arrest.

Mills did not return calls yesterday. He was freed Wednesday night on $250,000 bail, charged with two counts each of burglary and theft. Drew Berry, general manager of WMAR-TV, where Mills has been a reporter and sports anchor for 18 years, declined to say yesterday whether Mills would return to the air.

Illicit use of prescription painkillers is a growing problem, health experts say. The number of people seeking treatment for addiction to prescribed drugs - including OxyContin and Hydrocodone - doubled in the past four years in Maryland, making them the fastest-growing drugs for which abusers are seeking treatment, according to Bill Rusinko, research director at the Maryland Alcohol and Drug Abuse Administration.

Dependency on prescription drugs such as OxyContin is the fifth-most treated substance addiction in Maryland, he noted.

Prescription pain relievers prone to abuse generally fall into a class of drugs known as opioids and include OxyContin, Vicodin, Percocet, Dilaudid and Lortab. OxyContin is a time-release version of the opioid oxycodone. Some drug users have been known to grind up OxyContin tablets for a quick high, and the pills sell for $1 a milligram on the street. The medications commonly sold illegally are 20, 40, 60, and 80 milligrams in strength, authorities say.

Jayne Conroy, a lawyer who represents more than 1,500 people who became addicted to OxyContin after they were prescribed the medication by a doctor for legitimate reasons, said that the drug's manufacturer has not adequately warned doctors about the drug's addictive qualities.

The drug's original warning label said that instances of addiction to the medication were "rare" if prescribed properly by a physician, according to a federal Government Accountability Office report in 2004.

The warning label was changed in 2001 to say that there were no addiction data available, but Conroy's suits on behalf of her clients allege that the manufacturer's sales force falsely marketed the medication as a drug that had an abuse rate lower than that of other opioids. The first of Conroy's suits is scheduled for trial in March in Florida.

James W. Heins, a spokesman for Purdue Pharma, the Stamford, Conn., company that brought OxyContin to market in 1996, said, "There are concerns about the uses of these medications." He added: "These are medications that have been used [to relieve pain for] millions of patients."

Purdue Pharma, he said, has not lost any of 407 other product liability cases brought against the company in connection with OxyContin. Those cases, he said, have been dismissed or withdrawn. "In no such product liability case has Purdue paid to settle a case, and no verdict has been entered against the company," he said.

Purdue did settle an economic injury case brought by the attorney general of West Virginia, he said.

The drug has been popular with physicians who over the past decade have been encouraged by medical societies to take more aggressive approaches to treat the pain that often accompanies osteoporosis, arthritis, cardiovascular disease, cancer and surgical procedures.

"We've developed the concept over the past 10 or 15 years that nobody should stay in pain, that the pain should be treated and not ignored," said Dr. Donald Jasinski, director of the chemical-dependency unit at Johns Hopkins Bayview Medical Center.

Physicians also say it can sometimes be hard for them to tell if someone needs medication to ease pain or is dealing with addiction.

"Pain is subjective. If someone says they're in pain, it's hard to show that they're not," said Dr. Christopher Welsh, an addiction psychiatrist at the University of Maryland School of Medicine.

But exactly why some people become addicted to painkillers while others can resist them remains a mystery.

"It could be genetic, it could be learned, it could be induced," Jasinski said.

Welsh said that genetic variations can determine how someone's brain will react to a drug. In those prone to addiction, opioid receptors in the brain can be permanently altered.

"There's evidence that your brain may find taking ... [painkillers] a more pleasurable experience than someone else's brain," Welsh said.

Some physicians stopped prescribing OxyContin about two years ago, Welsh said. While he still prescribes it, he said he is careful about who is allowed to use it.

"I'm definitely more careful, and I'd say most doctors are," he said.

Sun reporter Rob Hiaasen contributed to this article.

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