The push to make the opioid overdose antidote naloxone more readily available in the U.S. gained another foothold with its over-the-counter expansion to Walgreens pharmacies in Pennsylvania on Monday. Frequently sold under the brand name Narcan, naloxone is touted as an important and potentially lifesaving tool in combating the nationwide epidemic that has led an estimated 2 million-plus Americans to become addicted to opioids and one of them to die of an overdose every 24 minutes.
The opioid epidemic has grabbed the attention of politicians, public health officials and drug company executives alike. U.S. Surgeon General Vivek Murthy called it “a top priority” in a recent Politico interview. Murthy is expected to release this year a major report on substance abuse that will touch on opioids such as heroin, among other drugs. The House of Representatives is expected to take up next month several bills aimed at curbing the abuse of heroin and painkillers, while the Senate passed similar legislation last month.
Operator of almost 8,200 retail outlets across the U.S., Walgreens announced plans in February to make naloxone available over-the-counter in more than 5,800 of its stores in 35 states and the District of Columbia. In states where regulations mandate that naloxone be dispensed only by a prescription, the retailer has said it is “available and eager to work with regulators to help update rules” so the overdose antidote can be obtained without one.
“We are committed to making naloxone more accessible in the communities we serve,” Kimberly Treece, Walgreens regional vice president in Pennsylvania, said in a statement Monday.
Besides Pennsylvania, naloxone is now available over-the-counter in its pharmacies in Indiana, Massachusetts, New York, Ohio and Rhode Island, Walgreens said. The drug works by reversing the effects of overdosing on opioids, encompassing not only heroin but also prescription painkillers such as codeine, morphine and oxycodone. It can be administered as a nasal spray or by injection.
In 2014, 47,055 people in the U.S. died because of overdoses of all kinds of drugs, the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported. Among these deaths, 10,574 were caused by heroin, compared with 4,397 in 2011.
Demand for naloxone has skyrocketed accordingly, rising to reach $53.2 million in sales in 2014, an increase of 62 percent over 2010, as indicated by figures compiled by the information, services and technology company IMS Health.
Another nationwide pharmacy chain, CVS has announced plans similar to those of Walgreens, as it seeks to make Narcan available this year in the 35 states where it can lawfully be sold without prescriptions. It already offers the drug in 16 of those states, selling a package containing two doses for between $40 and $50, as noted in a CNNMoney report.