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N.H. Senate Panel to Debate Ban on Sale of Painkiller

Concord — The Senate Commerce Committee today will consider legislation that would temporarily ban a powerful new painkiller that addiction experts have warned will add to the state’s burgeoning opiate epidemic.

Committee Chairman Andy Sanborn, R-Bedford , unveiled an amendment last week to a House bill that would prohibit sales of the drug, Zohydro, for up to 18 months — or until its manufacturer designs a tamper-deterrent version.

The drug, which is as much as five times as powerful as similar prescription pills, has come under intense scrutiny since the Food and Drug Administration approved its use in October for patients in need of continuous pain relief. Critics say its present formula allows it to be easily crushed and then snorted or injected for a quick high.

Several states and private health care providers have already taken action. Vermont passed an emergency order earlier this month that would make it harder for doctors to prescribe Zohydro. Several hospitals there and in New Hampshire — including Dartmouth-Hitchcock Medical Center, the state’s largest health care network — have voluntarily barred their physicians from prescribing the drug. The drug has not yet been publicly sold in New Hampshire.

Federal legislation has also been introduced that would force the FDA to withdraw its approval. Nearly 30 state attorneys general, including New Hampshire’s, signed a letter requesting a similar revocation.

The efforts have been met by resistance, at least in Massachusetts, where Zohydro’s manufacturer, Zogenix, is suing the state over a similar emergency ban imposed last month by Gov. Deval Patrick. The state’s ban remains in effect for now.

U.S. District Court Judge Rya Zobel heard more arguments Monday in a lawsuit that claims the state is overstepping its authority in restricting drug use within Massachusetts in violation of the U.S. Constitution.

The judge declined to immediately rule on a request for a temporary stay of the ban. She did not say when she would make a decision.

The ban, issued in March, is believed to be the first attempt by a state to block a federally-approved drug, according to the National Alliance for Model State Drug Laws.

The state argues that Zohydro will “exacerbate a severe public health crisis” because the drug can be easily crushed, then snorted or injected to create an immediate and potentially lethal high.

Zogenix argued Monday that the medication has already been approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration. Stephen Hollman, an attorney for Zogenix, suggested that giving states latitude to regulate prescription drugs would erode federal authority.

“Congress intended FDA approvals to have nationwide effect,” Hollman said. “Imagine 50 states each imposing a different formulation requirement ... That’s the too-many-cooks situation.”

Sanborn said Monday that it’s not yet clear whether the same legal action could be taken against New Hampshire, were it to impose its own ban. New Hampshire would potentially be in a less vulnerable position, Sanborn said, given that its ban would come through the legislature, rather than through an emergency order from the governor.

Zogenix broadly contends that its drug is safer than others like it, as it contains no acetaminophen, a prevalent ingredient that over time has the potential to cause liver damage or failure. That also makes it stronger and potentially more addictive than other painkillers.

New Hampshire has seen a sharp rise recently in abuse of prescription pain medication. Between 2008 and 2010, the number of people admitted to state treatment facilities for such addictions jumped by more than 60 percent. Officials have pointed to the increase as the leading precursor to heroin addiction, which has seen a similar boom.

Sanborn said he worried that Zohydro, at least in its present form, would compound that problem.

“We don’t want you to stop you from selling it,” he said, referring to the drug and its maker. “We just want make sure it’s safe.”

The amendment is being co-sponsored by Sen. David Pierce, D-Lebanon and a fellow committee member. Both he and Sanborn said they became convinced of the dangers surrounding the drug when Dartmouth-Hitchcock announced its voluntary ban last week.

Others in the state have also sounded an alarm, including Sen. Jeanne Shaheen, who announced Friday she was sending a letter to the FDA commissioner, asking that she reconsider Zohydro’s approval. U.S. Reps. Carol Shea-Porter and Annie Kuster joined other Northeast officials in signing a similar message early this year.

Today’s public hearing begins at 3 p.m.