Amid a concerning trend of opioid addiction cases in China, the country’s National Medical Products Administration announced Tuesday in a joint statement with two other government agencies that medication containing up to 5 milligrams per unit of the painkiller oxycodone will be upgraded to a Category II psychotropic drug beginning next month.
Doctors may only prescribe Category II drugs for a week at a time, according to a report Thursday from financial news outlet Jiemian that quoted an official from the Chinese Association of Drug Abuse Prevention and Treatment. Only vendors approved by provincial-level governments can sell Category II psychotropic drugs, and under current regulations, doctors are required to keep records of any prescriptions for such drugs for at least two years.
Oxycodone-acetaminophen tablets were first introduced to China in 1998 as a Category II drug, though they were later reclassified in July 2004 as an “ordinary prescription drug,” according to Jiemian. At licensed pharmacies in China, a box of 10 oxycodone-acetaminophen tablets costs around 60 yuan ($8.50).
A photo of oxycodone-containing tablets sold on Chinese e-commerce platform JD.com. From JD.com’s website
Following Tuesday’s announcement, a woman using the pseudonym Liu Qian told the Southern Metropolis Daily newspaper that she became addicted to oxycodone after she was prescribed the drug to relieve pain from a herniated disc. She said she tried everything to quit, even having her husband hide her pills and locking herself up at home to detox. “Whenever I don’t feel well, I want to take the drug to relieve the pain,” Liu told the paper. “After taking it, my body stops hurting, and my mood even improves.”
In 2017, the roughly 970,000 opioid users in China accounted for 38% of the country’s total drug users, according to a government report. A similar report published in 2018 said that over half a million drug users had gone through rehabilitation only to relapse later, with 42.1% doing so with opioids.
“Addiction to oxycodone-acetaminophen tablets started becoming really serious in 2013, and the situation has only gotten worse since,” said He Rihui, an entrepreneur and a member of the first Committee of Drug Dependence and Abuse under the Chinese Society of Toxicology.
He told Sixth Tone that doctors’ “insufficient awareness” of drug dependence, as well as addicts’ reactions to certain drugs being reclassified, had contributed to the increasing abuse of oxycodone in China. When the opioids tramadol and hydrocodone were upgraded to Category II controlled substances in 2008, he explained, users simply switched to oxycodone, which at the time was available over the counter.
“Although this reclassification of oxycodone is meaningful, history is bound to repeat itself,” He said.
In April, three government agencies announced that fentanyl — an opioid painkiller that can be up to 100 times stronger than morphine — had been added to a national list of controlled substances. In the months leading up to the announcement, American officials had blamed China-manufactured fentanyl for the ongoing opioid epidemic in the U.S., which saw more than 28,400 overdose deaths from the drug and its analogs in 2017.
Editors: David Paulk and Layne Flower.
(Header image: JD.com)