HARRISBURG, Pa. – A narcotic painkiller in lollipop-like form designed to speed relief to cancer patients has begun showing up in illegal sales in Philadelphia and elsewhere under the street nickname "perc-a-pops." (search)
State law enforcement officials are warning of the potential for abuse of Actiq (search) -- a berry-flavored lozenge on a stick that contains the synthetic opioid fentanyl.
"We're starting to see it emerge as a drug that is, as we call it, 'diverted,' which is a legally prescribed drug being used illegally," said Kevin Harley, spokesman for Pennsylvania Attorney General Jerry Pappert (search). "And it's a drug that is easily administered or taken by somebody who might be afraid to either take a pill, snort or inject a needle in their arm."
Manufactured by West Chester-based Cephalon Inc., Actiq's active ingredient is absorbed by rubbing the lozenge against the inside of the cheek.
It is approved by the Food and Drug Administration to combat so-called "breakthrough pain," flares suffered by cancer patients who are already taking narcotics in more conventional liquid or pill form to cope with chronic pain.
Cephalon spokeswoman Stacey Beckhardt said the company does not know the extent to which Actiq is used recreationally, but noted Cephalon maintains a risk-management program to combat such abuse.
"Like any opioid, there is a potential for misuse of a product. We believe ... there has not been a substantial diversion of this product in the state or elsewhere," she said.
Philadelphia Police arrested a Bensalem couple in October on drug charges and seized nearly 100 perc-a-pops, according to the Bucks County Courier-Times. That raid was prompted by a prior arrest in northeast Philadelphia that had netted about 30 of the Actiq lozenges.
And last week in northeastern Pennsylvania, Carbondale police arrested three people for delivery and possession of Actiq in the form of what they called "morphine lollypop sticks," the Scranton Times reported.
Harley said each Actiq lozenge retails for $9.10, but the going street value is $20.
"We started seeing them in Philly, and that's where we understand the nickname came from," he said.
Beckhardt described the taste as "a mild berry flavor," which she said was necessary to meet "patient acceptability." But Harley said the attractive taste makes abuse more likely.
"You don't want drugs to taste good, particularly a narcotic painkiller that you don't want people to use for long periods of time," he said.
Beckhardt said Actiq, introduced in 1999, has been increasing in popularity among physicians, but she said it still represented just a fraction of the 161 million opioid prescriptions issued in 2003. About 326,000 Actiq prescriptions were written in last year.
Fentanyl was first introduced as an intravenous anesthetic called Sublimaze in the 1960s. In addition to Actiq, it is also currently being dispensed as a transdermal patch under the trade name Duragesic.
Hospitals in the 48 contiguous states reported 576 incidents of non-medical use of fentanyl products in 2000, but the number rose to 1,506 by 2002, said Leah R. Young, spokeswoman for the federal Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration.