By Saumya Joseph

(Reuters Health) – More than three years after Pennsylvania issued a statewide order expanding access to the life-saving opioid antidote naloxone, the product was still hard to purchase in Philadelphia pharmacies, researchers found.

In 2017, two-thirds of pharmacies in Philadelphia either did not stock naloxone, or they still insisted on a physician’s prescription, which the law said was no longer required.

In the wake of the opioid addiction crisis that has claimed thousands of lives, many U.S. states have passed laws like Pennsylvania’s, which allow the drug to be dispensed without a prescription and mandate that every drugstore carry it.

Laws that let pharmacists sell naloxone without prescription have been associated with a nearly 30% drop in the number of opioid overdose deaths, a separate team of researchers reported last month. (

Yet this study is not the first to find that drugstores are slow to comply. Research has shown that most pharmacies in California and Texas, for example, do not carry the drug or make it readily available.

The new results add to the growing body of evidence that these laws are not being enforced, experts said.

“While policy can be put in place, it’s not sufficient and has to be followed up with education, and reinforcement at the county and pharmacy level, and not just assume that the policy itself will ensure access to anyone who needs it,” Dr. Michael Lynch, a toxicologist and emergency medicine physician who was not involved in the study, told Reuters Health.

For the current study, Dima Qato of the University of Illinois, Chicago and colleagues contacted 418 drugstores in Philadelphia between February and August 2017 and found that only about 34% had naloxone in stock – and 38.5% of those drugstores required a physician’s prescription to dispense the drug.

People living in communities with elevated rates of opioid overdose deaths were the least likely to have access to naloxone without a prescription and had to pay more to buy the drug, the researchers wrote in JAMA Network Open.

“Areas that need this policy enforced the most are areas that lack it and that’s a concern,” Qato told Reuters Health by phone.

An overdose of opioids like morphine or heroin slows breathing, reducing the supply of oxygen to the body. Naloxone helps reverse the effects of an overdose and saves lives.

Lynch, who is also the medical director of the Pittsburgh Poison Center at the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center, notes that the high importance of naloxone may not necessarily translate to high demand.

“If patients or individuals are not coming in and asking for it, pharmacies, especially a local independent pharmacy with pretty narrow margins, may not continue to stock a medication that isn’t being dispensed,” he added.

However, Mel Brodsky, executive director of PARD, an association of community pharmacies in Philadelphia, disputes the study’s findings.

“It is from 2 years ago – a lot has changed. Philadelphia mandates that every pharmacy have 2 doses of naloxone in stock. As I travel to my stores, I see 95% having naloxone in stock,” he told Reuters Health by email.

Dr. Michael Fingerhood, of Johns Hopkins Bayview Medical Center in Baltimore, Maryland, told Reuters Health that the low numbers in the study may be partly due to a shortage of naloxone in 2017.

“I would do a similar study now, (when) we don’t have a shortage of naloxone, and see if there has been any difference, two years later,” he said.

SOURCE: JAMA Network Open, online June 7, 2019