FDA: New labeling warns against combining opioids, benzodiazepines


Labeling for prescription opioid pain or cough medicines and benzodiazepines will now carry the strongest available warning regarding serious side effects and death associated with their combined use, according to the Food and Drug Administration.

The new boxed warnings urge health care professionals to limit prescribing opioid pain medicines with benzodiazepines or other central nervous system depressants only to patients for whom alternative treatment options are inadequate, and to limit dosages and treatment duration to the minimum possible while achieving the desired clinical effect.

“First, the FDA is requiring companies to update their product labeling for ... benzodiazepines and opioids to include possible harms when they are used together. Second, we are requiring new or updated medication guides for these drugs reflecting those same warnings,” said Doug Throckmorton, MD, deputy director of the FDA’s Center for Drug Evaluation and Research, during a telebriefing.

Opioids will include a warning regarding prescribing with benzodiazepines and other central nervous system depressants, including alcohol. Benzodiazepines will include a warning regarding prescribing with opioids.

In addition, the FDA has issued a safety communication to “warn the public about the serious risk of taking these products together to help make doctors more cautious and patients better informed,” Dr. Throckmorton said.

The action comes amid ongoing efforts to address an epidemic of opioid addiction across the United States, and in response to a first-of-its-kind “citizen petition” calling for the boxed warnings.

A coalition of health officials from multiple cities, states, and U.S. territories initiated that petition in February, and thousands of concerned community members started an additional online petition. Those petitions were in response to both the increasing combined use of opioids and benzodiazepines and a concomitant increase in the risk of serious side effects and deaths associated with their combined use, according to Baltimore City Health Commissioner Leana Wen, MD.

As an emergency physician, Dr. Wen said that she has seen firsthand the alarming trends; one in three unintentional overdose deaths from prescribed opioids also involve benzodiazepines, she noted.

“In my state of Maryland in 2014, benzodiazepines were associated with 19% of prescription opioid deaths, and 59% of benzodiazepine-associated deaths involved prescription opioids. We also noted the growing biological evidence that combining these medications caused sleepiness and slowed breathing, increasing the likelihood of a fatal overdose,” she said.

Dr. Throckmorton further noted that emergency department visits and deaths involving patients prescribed both opioids and benzodiazepines have increased significantly over time. From 2004 to 2011, the rate of nonmedical use–related emergency department visits increased significantly each year, and overdose deaths involving both drug classes during that period nearly tripled on an annual basis.

Dr. Robert Califf

Dr. Robert Califf

“Communities have been seeing this trend for some time, but ultimately we needed data in order to act today,” FDA Commissioner Robert Califf, MD, said during the telebriefing.

The current action is just “one part of a larger effort to address this epidemic.

“We remain focused and deeply committed to contributing to the comprehensive effort to address the opioid epidemic,” Dr. Califf said. The FDA “will continue to monitor these products carefully and take additional actions as needed, and will share updates with the public as necessary as we work to address this public health crisis.”

Dr. Califf noted that the current action is part of the FDA’s Opioids Action Plan, which is “importantly not meant just to cover illicit or abusive use of opioids.”

“So, you’ll be hearing a lot more from us, because this is a national crisis that is not going away. We’re making progress on the prescribing, and we’re seeing a reduction in the use of opioids now,” he noted. “But we’re still seeing many overdoses.

“This is a continuum, and we’ll continue to try to do everything we can to address the epidemic,” Dr. Califf concluded.

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