Bupropion Abuse on the Rise, Study Suggests

Susan London

July 22, 2015

The proportion of bupropion prescriptions that were refilled under circumstances that suggest misuse or diversion increased roughly 10-fold in Ontario, Canada, during a 13-year period, according to a study published in the July/August issue of the Annals of Family Medicine.

In the final study year, such questionable prescriptions totaled an estimated 48,000 pills of the drug, which is clinically used to treat depression and to support smoking cessation efforts. People who abuse the drug say it provides a cocaine-like high.

"These findings suggest a troubling phenomenon that bupropion prescriptions are being used recreationally at an increasing rate," write the investigators, led by Leah S. Steele, MD, PhD, from the Institute for Clinical Evaluative Sciences; St. Michael's Hospital; and the University of Toronto in Ontario, Canada.

"Physicians and pharmacists should be aware of the potential for bupropion misuse, particularly in patients prone to substance use disorders or those who display unusual drug-seeking behaviors," they write. "Adding questions about misuse of bupropion to population-based drug use surveys could help determine the extent of the problem."

The serial cross-sectional study included data from Ontarians younger than 65 years and not residing in long-term care facilities who received prescriptions under the province's public drug program from April 1, 2000, to March 31, 2013.

The investigators ascertained the quarterly number of bupropion prescriptions that were potentially inappropriate, defined as early refills dispensed within half of the duration of the preceding prescription, and that were potentially duplicitous, defined as such early refills originating from a different prescriber and different pharmacy. They conducted the same analyses for citalopram and sertraline, which are antidepressants not known to be prone to abuse.

Overall, the authors identified 1,780,802 prescriptions for bupropion, 3,402,462 for citalopram, and 1,775,285 for sertraline.

There was a sharp rise in potentially duplicitous prescriptions for bupropion during the study period, going from less than 0.05% of all prescriptions to 0.47%, with greatest increase seen after 2008. In the final study quarter, this 0.47% rate was significantly higher than that for both citalopram (0.11%) and sertraline (0.12%).

However, the rate of early refills for bupropion fell during the study period, from 4.8% to 3.1%, as did the rate for the other two drugs. In the final quarter, the 3.1% rate of early refills for bupropion was significantly higher than that for citalopram (2.2%), but not that for sertraline (2.9%).

The investigators note that the public drug program from which the study data were derived accounts for less than half of all prescription drug expenditures in Ontario. "Consequently, although we identified a large proportion of anomalous bupropion prescriptions in the province, the total number is necessarily higher," they point out.

One coauthor has reported serving on advisory boards and/or receiving honoraria from Astra Zeneca, Bristol-Myers Squibb, Eli Lilly and Company, GlaxoSmithKline, Hoffman La Roche, Novartis, Novo Nordisk, and Pfizer. The other authors report no conflicts of interest.

Ann Fam Med. 2015;13:343-346. Full text

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