New Jersey could be the first state to require all pharmacists apply red stickers on opioid prescription bottles warning customers of the risk of addiction and overdose.

A new bill making its way through the Legislature proposes putting red warning labels on the caps of prescription bottles for opioid medications to increase awareness of the dangers of taking the drugs and the part they have played in the nationwide opioid and heroin epidemic.

“It’s still amazing to me, that when I speak to schools or parent groups, there are so many different pain pills out there that many people don’t know what is and isn’t an opioid,” said bill sponsor Assemblyman John Armato, D-Atlantic.

New Jersey recorded 2,221 drug-related overdose deaths in 2016, the majority of which involved heroin and fentanyl use, state data show.

Nearly 80 percent of heroin users across the country reported misusing prescription opioids first, according to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. In New Jersey, 52.6 opioid prescriptions were dispensed per 100 people in 2016.

Armato, whose family has been touched by the epidemic, said he, Assemblyman Vince Mazzeo, D-Atlantic, and their team first got the idea from a monthlong campaign last May in Utah.

That state’s Department of Health encouraged pharmacists to apply the warning labels throughout May to increase awareness and start conversations among doctors, patients and pharmacists on their roles in addressing the epidemic.

“A lot of people have come up to me and said, ‘It’s so simple, why didn’t anyone else think about that?’” Armato said. “And I think that’s because people are looking for a silver bullet to tackle the problem, when we’ve really got to attack it from all different sides and chip away at it.”

Taking a page from Utah’s book, the stickers would be red with bold white lettering and would likely be placed on a bottle’s cap since there is minimal real estate on the body of the bottle. Armato said he hopes to create a uniform label that all pharmacies would use.

Drug labeling regulations are created and monitored by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, but adding warning stickers to bottles can be done on a state-by-state basis.

Mark Taylor, president and CEO of Curexa Pharmacy in Egg Harbor Township, said it wouldn’t be a heavy lift for pharmacists to comply with the law. It wouldn’t require extra time, money or manpower to make sure opioid prescription bottles contained the stickers, he said.

The only basic concern, Taylor said, would be whether the placement of the sticker would fit and make sense on the bottle amid all the other stickers, and whether the law will truly have an effect.

“We pharmacists are all for helping with the opioid epidemic, and whatever we need to do to help, great,” he said. “Our concern is if it would help. A lot of patients don’t read the stickers. It’s not that we’re opposed to it (the law), we just wouldn’t know how effective it would be.”

Taylor said communicating with patients verbally about the dangers of opioid drugs is usually better, but a combination with a sticker warning would certainly help some, especially for patients not already addicted to opioids or heroin.

Armato said there’s no hard data on how effective the measure could be, but if, at minimum, all it does is increase awareness of the problem and inform a parent their child is about to take an opioid, it would be worth it.

“There’s so much confusion out there,” he said, “but I do think doctors and pharmacies are doing a lot better now at explaining and cutting back on prescriptions, and this (law) couldn’t hurt.”

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Contact: 609-272-7022 NLeonard@pressofac.com Twitter @ACPressNLeonard

Previously interned and reported for Boston.com, The Asbury Park Press, The Boston Globe

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