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New Option For Kicking Heroin Habit

Federal health officials launched an education campaign Tuesday to let doctors and heroin users know there's a new medication that can help curb addicts' cravings — and for the first time, it can be prescribed in doctor's offices instead of drug-treatment clinics.

The Food and Drug Administration approved buprenorphine in October, an alternative to methadone in helping people kick addiction to heroin and similar opioids, drugs also found in prescription painkillers.

Now, the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration is trying to spread the word.

Methadone is the most common treatment for opioid addiction, but it can be dispensed only in a few special drug-treatment clinics. Only about 20 percent of heroin addicts receive it.

Buprenorphine, in contrast, can be prescribed in doctor's offices — as long as the physician qualifies. The key: Doctors must seek a government waiver allowing them to prescribe buprenorphine after completing eight hours of mandatory training.

So far, more than 2,000 doctors have been trained to use buprenorphine and about 300 have received waivers to begin prescribing, according to SAMHSA.

To increase those numbers — and let addicts know about the new option — the drug abuse agency plans to hold public meetings in Baltimore, Boston, Chicago, Dallas, Detroit, Miami, New Orleans, New York/Newark, N.J., Portland, Ore., Salt Lake City, San Francisco, Seattle, Wilmington, Del./Philadelphia and San Juan, Puerto Rico.

Buprenorphine, a tablet dissolved under the tongue, works by blocking the same brain receptors that heroin targets, but without heroin's high and with weaker narcotic effects than methadone.