Nobody’s Breathing Easier Around Here

I was scrolling through statistics on drug sales recently, looking up information for another post. I found something that shocked me right down to my socks. For as long as I’ve been following this information—more than 20 years now—the number-one selling drug in terms of prescriptions written has been a painkiller. Most recently this has been the opiate hydrocodone plus acetaminophen, the popular Vicodin.

Now 38 million scripts a year is a lot of prescriptions, but I do understand how this could happen. The trend makes sense to me because so many people experience distracting pain at some point during a year. I’ve taken one or another of these drugs for dental issues and for a broken rib. But pain relief has taken a back seat to drugs for breathing difficulty.

A Breath of Fresh Air? Hardly

In 2013 (the latest year available) the number-one selling drug in this country was generic budesonide, a drug used to treat asthma. The shocking part for me is that budesonide is joined by 3 more breathing drugs in the top 10, and another 5 among the top 75 sellers. That’s more than 120 million prescriptions all told in 2013. Some of these later 8 are also used to treat COPD—chronic obstructive pulmonary disorder, a catch-all phrase that includes emphysema and chronic bronchitis.

As a child I had allergy-related asthma. I eventually mostly grew out of the allergies, and a damp summer night is about the only thing that bothers me now. I still have a prescription inhaler around for occasional use (but I think it’s about 10 years old by now—maybe time for a replacement). Allergies in general seem much more prevalent now overall, so I suppose the increase in respiratory drugs is related to that. And when you look at sales statistics, the asthma drugs are very seasonal—peaking during the winter—while those primarily for COPD have a much more level sales trend.

Maybe this is all related to people living longer. Or maybe it’s the long tail of the tobacco use dragon. It could be related to lung damage from other prescription meds. Or the allergy piece. Whichever, there are many, many people out there on meds for lung health.