Investigators link Prince's death to counterfeit painkillers

The untimely death of musician Prince in April may have been caused by counterfeit painkiller tablets laced with fentanyl, according to investigators.

The suspected counterfeits appear to be copies of a Watson Pharmaceuticals generic hydrocodone/acetaminophen product, which has the same active ingredients as are used in AbbVie's Vicodin brand. The combination is notorious for being abused by drug addicts.

A white tablet stamped with 'Watson 385' was discovered at Prince's home in Minnesota and on analysis was found to contain fentanyl, a highly-potent and potentially lethal opioid analgesic that is increasingly being found in counterfeit painkillers.

Autopsy results released in June showed Prince died of an accidental fentanyl overdose.

Investigators are "leaning toward the theory" that Prince took the pills without knowing they contained fentanyl, according to a report in the Minneapolis Star Tribune.

Watson Pharma has been part of Teva Pharmaceutical Industries since 2013, and says it stopped manufacturing hydrocodone/acetaminophen with that formulation and markings more than two years ago. Any product in that format would have expired in September 2015, it adds.

The presence of fentanyl in the tablet makes it highly likely that the tablet is a counterfeit, and part of an epidemic of fake painkillers that have already claimed dozens of lives in North America in recent months.

Earlier this year a fake version of Actavis' Norco brand of hydrocodone/acetaminophen was linked to at least 10 deaths and dozens of hospitalisations in the Sacramento area. Similar clusters of deaths from fentanyl-laced tablets have been reported on the east coast of the US as well as in Canada.

A recent report by the US Drug Enforcement Administration is predicting that addictions, overdoses and deaths linked expected to increase.

"The seizures of fentanyl-laced pills and clandestine pill press operations all across North America indicate that this is becoming a trend, not a series of isolated incidents," said the DEA report.

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