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Interviews With Barry Meier, Tim Padgett

Aired October 10, 2003 - 15:49   ET


MILES O'BRIEN, CNN ANCHOR: Let's turn to one of the leading experts on this whole epidemic of OxyContin addiction. Barry Meier is a "New York Times" correspondent who has literally written the book on all this and really brought the whole addiction issue with this particular painkiller to public knowledge.
Barry, I guess it was only last week we were talking about this in the hypothetical. Now that we hear that Rush Limbaugh is, in fact, addicted, it -- and we talked to Dr. Drew and he tells us that he's got a tremendous uphill battle. Why don't you give a sense of the battle he faces.

BARRY MEIER, AUTHOR: I would agree totally with Dr. Drew. These are very difficult addictions to overcome. These are opiate addictions. You know, perfect counter point is heroin addiction. There's significant relapse that occurs.

Unfortunately, Mr. Limbaugh is going to be confronting this problem from this time forward and is going to have to be under excellent medical supervision, monitoring his situation, counseling him to avoid a relapse, I would imagine.

O'BRIEN: We just talked to Dr. Drew Pinsky and I spoke to him about the issue which you bring up, and a lot of your writing, which is the issue of how this drug was brought to market and how it became abused. And his point was, you know, don't blame the product. Blame the addict. What's your thought on that?

MEIER: I think it's a little more complex than that. There's no, you know, ideal pain patient. There's no ideal addict. Look at Rush Limbaugh, a high-functioning individual who was being treated for pain who, unfortunately, went down this particular path.

This is a drug that was initially marketed as less prone to abuse than competing narcotics. This is a very wonderful drug, but it's a very high-powered drug a kind of nuclear weapon in the medical arsenal. And it has to be handled with care, with diligence and unfortunately, this, you know, problem with this drug occurred because in many cases doctors weren't handling this properly.

O'BRIEN: When I asked Dr. Drew Pinsky, I knew he wouldn't have the numbers readily available. I bet you do. Give us a sense of the scope of the particular problem.

MEIER: Oh, I think people can debate about numbers, but the DEA estimates that OxyContin was a factor -- not necessarily the cause, but a factor in hundreds of overdose deaths.

Even moving beyond this particular drug, you know, my book points out that, you know, there are places in this country where deaths from prescription drugs, particularly prescription narcotics, out pace those from illicit drugs like heroin. That ought to be telling us we have a problem in this country we're not successfully dealing with at all.

O'BRIEN: Is the system broken at the point where patient meets doctor or is it bigger than that?

MEIER: I think it's broken in a number of places. Where the rubber hits the road is where the patient does meet the doctor.

But we have regulatory systems that are out of whack. We've got claims being made for drugs that really, you know, haven't been tested. We've got all types of problems.

But, you know, it is really the responsibility of the medical community to read the literature to understand this stuff, and to spend more than, you know, the typical seven or ten minutes that they spend with a patient before prescribing them a drug. Because some of these drugs have very serious consequences to them.

O'BRIEN: Barry Meier with "The New York Times," author of "Painkiller: A Wonder Drugs Trail of Addiction and Death." It's a pleasure hearing from you again under these unfortunate circumstances. Thanks for being with us -- Kyra.

KYRA PHILLIPS, CNN ANCHOR: Someone else who has been following this story, Miami bureau chief for "TIME" magazine Tim Padgett. Tim, how far does your story trail go? Did you know about the investigations into the black marketing of OxyContin? Did you have leads into Rush Limbaugh's name being brought into the mix here?

TIM PADGETT, "TIME": This has been a problem in Florida for a while. Not just Florida, obviously, elsewhere in the country. Investigators say this has been a particular problem in Florida. For example, last year, we had a doctor sentenced to almost 63 years in prison for the deaths of patients to whom he had illicitly prescribed OxyContin.

We had another doctor in Palm Beach County itself, which is where Rush Limbaugh was allegedly getting his supplies of OxyContin and other prescription drugs. There's a trial of a doctor pending there.

We've got quite a few patient/doctor cases going one and we've also got quite a few black market rings that are being investigated. Some of which or one of which is being broken up as a result of this investigation that Rush Limbaugh mentioned just today that's focusing on him.

PHILLIPS: Interesting. Why Florida? Why does this seem to be popular in Florida?

PADGETT: It's interesting. One of the ironies is that OxyContin is often called the "poor man's heroin." A lot of investigators would say it should be called the rich man's heroin, because for one thing, it has the same effects as heroin in many ways but doesn't carry the social stigma of heroin. It can be very expensive to get. I mean, one investigator has likened it to stripping down a car.

For example, just as a single hubcap for a car costs much more on the black market when a car is stripped down, a single pill of OxyContin costs tremendously much more when it's put on the black market, away from legal prescription both bottles, et cetera, running anywhere from $20, $80, $100 a pill.

PHILLIPS: Tim Padgett, Miami bureau chief of "TIME" magazine, thank you for your time. We will continue to follow this as Rush Limbaugh comes forward on his radio show and admits he's, indeed, addicted to painkillers.


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