Methadone has accounted for 30 percent of painkiller deaths in the U.S., although it only makes up 2 percent of prescriptions, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) said Tuesday.
More than 15,500 people died from prescription drug use in 2009, and methadone made up nearly one-third of those deaths. That year, six times as many people died from methadone overdose than a decade before. Despite the Food and Drug Administration's (FDA) warning about the risks, more than 4 million prescriptions for methadone were written in 2009.
Developed in Germany in 1937 and used by American doctors to treat addiction since the 1960s, methadone use has been on the rise since the mid-1990s due to its relatively lower cost. CDC Director Dr. Thomas Frieden said,
"Using methadone for pain is penny wise and pound foolish. Although it may cost a couple of dollars less per pill, the result is many more emergency room visits, and a much higher societal cost in deaths, and addiction and other problems that can be avoided."
According to TIME methadone, which is a generic drug, is 12 times cheaper than the brand name painkiller Oxycontin. It is also one of the longest lasting opioids, and builds up in the body over time. On average methadone kills pain for six hours, but if taken frequently, it can slow the user's breathing and disrupt the heart rhythm for several days. That means taking methadone as prescribed, three times a day, can have potentially serious side effects and may lead to a fatal overdose.
Though the CDC wants methadone to continue to be available for cancer patients and people being treated for addiction, Dr. Frieden warns simply, “There are plenty of safer alternatives to methadone.”