The Justice Department's Drug Abuse Warning Network has found that 589 deaths during 1977 were related to use of the popular pain-killing drug, Darvon.
This statistic was disclosed yesterday by Ralph Nader's Health Research Group in urging the government to ban Darvon. The health group described it as the nation's "deadliest prescription drug."
Dr. Sidney Wolfe, director of the Nader group, in a letter to ealth, Education and Welfare Secretary Joseph A. Califano Jr., said studies have shown the drug is no more effective than asprin as a pain killer and should be banned "as an imminent hazard to public health."
He said that if the drug is not banned, limits on production and a ban on prescription refills should be imposed.
Doctors last year wrote 35.5 million prescriptions for the drug, worth $140 million. Its principal manufacturer is Eli Lilly & Co. of Indianapolis.
Chemically, Darvon is similar to methodone, which is used as a heroin substitute for drug addicts.
A Lily spokesman yesterday defended the drug as having "a long history of safe and effective use." He conceded that it is "not immune from misuse," but said "hundreds of millions of patients have taken literally billions of doses" in the last 21 years "with an extremely high ration of safety and relative freedom from side effects."
Early this year, the Food and Drug Administration ordered Lily and other manufacturers to warn doctors that overdoses can cause coma or death, and that the drug should not be taken with alcohol, tranquilizers or other depressants.
Wolfe, citing many medical authorities, wrote Califano and Attorney General Griffin B. Bell saying:
The drug is of "little value" to ease pain, and other drugs can easily be substituted for it.
The Medical Letter reported in 1970 that "many physicians are not sufficiently aware that coma, circulatory and respiratory depression, convulsion and death can result from overdose. . . ."
The International Journal of Addiction said in 1974 that "addition can occur under the usual circumstances of medical prescribing."
Originally. Wolfe said, Lilly called the drug a "nonnarcotic" equal to codeine in killing pain and not requiring a special narcotic prescription. "Doctors were misled," he said, "and it takes a lot to get them to change their prescribing practices."
Last year the Justice Department declared the drug a "Schedule IV" controlled substance, meaning a patient could have no more than five refills in six months. "That has done very little," Wolfe said.
The National Institute on Drug Abuse reported yesterday that Darvon or similar compounds were implicated in 486 deaths in 24 major cities between May 1977 and April 1978. There were 609 heroin-related deaths in the same cities then.
But a NIDA analyst, Nicholas Kozel, said most heroin is used in metropolitan areas, which include only a third of the population, while Darvon is prescribed throughout the country. Based on this fact, he said: "It does appear that Darvon is involved in more deaths than heroin."
Wolfe bluntly called the drug "tantamount to legalized dope." He cited a recent survey that shows most doctors continue to think Darvon is a less dangerous drug than some - like the tranquilizer Valium and barbiturates sleeping pills - which now cause fewer deaths.
The Justice Department's Drug Abuse Warning Network data showed drug source could be learned, more than 90 percent got Valium or an equivalent compound with a legal prescription.