23 September 2003

Smoking cessation in dependency patients / Therapeutic thresholds in methadone maintenance

Tues 23 Sept 03

Professor Robyn Richmond. "Smoking cessation in dependency patients. What is best practice?"

Dr Richard Hallinan "Therapeutic thresholds in methadone maintenance: resolving the debate over blood levels".

Chair - Dr Bob Elliott.

Dear Colleagues,

We had another informative session at the September Concord dependency seminar when Professor Robyn Richmond from UNSW gave us a preview of the new general practice smoking cessation guidelines and their genesis. She reminded us of the prevalence of smoking in Australians at around 20% of the population, one of the lowest rates in the world. Despite very high smoking rates in the 1950s to 1960s, Australia succeeded in reductions with a combination of advertising bans, education, price policy and treatment availability. Yet smoking is still the biggest cause of preventable pathology and premature deaths in our population.

Around a third of smokers do not want to address their dependency and are 'pre-contemplators' regarding abstinence programs. But this still leaves a substantial proportion of smokers who are amenable to intervention. We now know from careful research that 'brief interventions' actually succeed in terms of yielding more non-smokers in 6 to 12 months, especially when there is active follow-up (see this week's MJA on the subject). General practice is one of the few places where 'opportunistic' interventions such as this can be done when smokers attend for a variety of other reasons, usually unrelated to tobacco addiction.

Professor Richmond told us that good statistics are now available for tobacco use as well as responses to the various evidence based interventions which are being promulgated in the new National Guidelines. On average, about 40% of 'successful' quitters will have taken up the habit again by one year. This emphasises the importance of follow up and preventive measures. We were told that although they may help some people, non-evidence based treatments such as acupuncture or hypnotherapy will not be included in the current guidelines.

As doctors, pharmacists and other health care workers, we were encouraged to inform all our smokers that help was available when they were ready to quit using nicotine replacement therapy (gums and patches) and buproprion tablets (Zyban). Professor Richmond said that there are some new 'commercial in confidence' drugs on the way and we should have even more modalities in the coming years. Nicotine patches can become a longer-term habit in about 10% of cases but this was thought to be overshadowed by the great benefits of the others who often manage to become abstinent for long periods, or even permanently.

We were advised to address smoking from the individual's perspective and ask what people actually found positive and pleasurable about smoking and what they found negative such a cost, health consequences, halitosis, etc. This allowed the patient to focus and reflect on their own habit and its consequences. Some anatomical photographs of lung cancer cases, blocked arteries, etc made good theatrical props and will be included in the package to GPs which are now being trialled.

In the second half Dr Richard Hallinan spoke of taking a history, examination and, occasionally, blood testing for detecting fast metabolizers in methadone maintenance therapy. He spoke of Professor Chin Eap's masterly review of the subject and his finding of a 'threshold' for blood levels which was consistent at around 0.4mg/l. Above this level regular heroin use is exceptional, making dose increases a serious option for those with lower levels, given that there is no clinical toxicity.

Dr Hallinan brought us face to face with a large group of published research relating to the absorption, portal availability, protein binding, hepatic and other metabolism and excretion of methadone. He pointed out the differences between methadone and many other drugs we use in medical practice as well as some of the similarities. He is presently working on a study of left and right stereoisomers of methadone (to use outdated terminology) and will bring us up to speed on that subject, including the new terms at the next seminar.

Summary by Andrew Byrne ..

3 September 2003

Supervised injecting room called for in Redfern

Dear Colleagues,

On Sunday a public meeting was held in Redfern to discuss the need for an injecting room in the area. It was chaired by South Sydney Mayor Tony Pooley and had speakers Dr Ingrid van Beek, Rev Ray Richmond, Rev Bill Crewes and Councillor Shayne Mallard. There were 45 people in attendance including representatives of the communities, Aboriginal Medical Service, local pharmacy, housing and local residents from Waterloo, Redfern and 'the block'.

There appeared to be no opposition to the concept of an injecting room but some lively debate occurred on where it might be located and how the police might react to it all. Police Service support for the Kings Cross injecting facility has been instrumental in its success.

Dr van Beek and other speakers were at pains to state that the lessons from Kings Cross did not necessarily translate directly to other areas where needs may be different. They had proved that such a service could operate successfully without disrupting the local community or business. Support had actually risen significantly during the 2 years of the trial according to independent polling (from 68 to 78% among residents and 58 to 63% for businesses). Apparently, only 1% of over 200 businesses polled reported adverse effects due to the injecting centre.

A resident from Eveleigh Street spoke passionately of the 'village' atmosphere which is potentially poisoned by the constant visible drug dealing and using. A man from Wilson Street also supported the injecting room concept to 'disconnect' the 'normal' use of needles seen by local children all around them. It was stated that there had been over 100 deaths in the Eveleigh-Abercrombie-Cleveland Street triangle in the past 3 years. It was debated just how many of the users were locals and what proportion were from Aboriginal backgrounds. Then it was generally agreed that they were all using drugs in our area and thus a local facility stood to help both the users and the local community, regardless of the backgrounds or origins of the users involved.

Most informed discussion since the release of the independent report into the Kings Cross "MSIC" has been very positive and it has been granted almost permanent status with another 4 year licence extension this week. Some debate has occurred on just how many deaths were prevented and at what cost. Such debate should focus on how to save more lives and how to be more cost effective in service delivery, yet some commentators have taken the consistent stand that it should be closed forthwith! Gross differences between the 'average' Australian drug user and the folk who use the trial injecting facility would seem to invalidate simple statistical comparisons.

I visit the Kings Cross injecting centre each week and have been struck by the 'ordinary' nature of its operation. Despite the rather brutal and potentially dangerous injecting behaviour which goes on in private in the 'middle' room, the entry assessment and waiting areas are always pleasant and businesslike with an almost complete lack of tension, high spirits or confrontation. The staff are invariably patient and yet firm with the assessment process which takes between two and ten minutes. After declaring what drugs they intend to use and when their last injection was, patients/clients may inject under supervision of nursing staff. The staff may give advice on injecting practices, vein care or other health matters, but they may NOT assist with actual injecting. Drug 'sharing' in the facility it not permitted.

The results speak for themselves and it is to be hoped that a consensus will be found for an injecting facility for the many people at risk as well as the community of Redfern and adjacent suburbs in the very near future. There seemed to be a general agreement at the public meeting on 31 August that such a medically supervised service should be within easy walking distance of 'the block' but probably not on 'the block' itself. This leaves the streets close to busy Redfern Station (10 tracks plus subway) as the most likely contenders. It would be no coincidence that a successful injecting facility would again be close to a hub of transport where it seems to disrupt other business less than the drug dealing and public using which is already going on, almost unchecked. I live one short block from the Kings Cross facility and it has improved matters for local residents here without doubt.

It is no longer possible to argue against the concept of injecting facilities without undervaluing the lives of drug users. They have been used for up to 15 years in several countries and they constitute one useful strategy to stem the toll from drug use in our society. Some of the victims of drug overdose are occasional or relatively recent users who may not be amenable to any other intervention and some may not even be addicted. Overdose death is the most recognisable complication of drug use but for every overdose death, we know that there is a proportionate number of non-fatal yet serious complications as well as viral infections from unclean injecting practices and the crime, poverty and ill health which accompanies street drug use.

Comments by Andrew Byrne ..