State health officials are sounding the alarm over ‘gas station heroin’

JACKSON, Miss. (WLBT) – It has been described as “gas station heroin” – a drug that people of all ages can legally buy at the local convenience store.

And while only a handful of people in Mississippi have gotten sick from consuming the substance in recent years, state health officials are sounding the alarm.

The Mississippi State Department of Health recently issued a Health Action Network (HAN) alert on tianeptine.

The drug, which is marketed for everything from treating anxiety to opioid addiction, is commonly sold under names such as ZaZa, Tianna and Red Dawn.

And it’s legal in Mississippi.

Officials discussed the drug at the Mississippi State Medical Association’s COVID-19 briefing on Friday.

“We’ve seen it probably in the last five years, but a trickle,” said Deputy State Health Officer Dr. Daniel Edney. “Once in a while someone would come, you know, on ZaZa, ZaZa Red or Super T… And usually what happened was they were at the gas station. You have the shelf that has kratom and ZaZa Red…and they might have heard enough about kratom to want to walk away from it, but hey, it’s something that’s an antidepressant.

“And the guy at the gas station says, ‘Yeah, that’ll ease your pain or your depression or whatever,’ so they’ll choose that and, as you know, in a good form of addiction, at the instead of taking one a day…they” I just take three bottles a day.

Since July 2020, the Mississippi Poison Control Center has received 11 calls related to tianeptine exposure, including 9 in 2020 and one so far this year, the HAN alert says.

Four people were hospitalized as a result of their exposure to the substance, with 36% of victims reporting chest pain or hypertension and 18% reporting diarrhea or vomiting.

Seventy-three percent of those who called told poison officials they had bought the drug at a local gas station, HAN says.

The drug has not been approved by the United States Food and Drug Administration.

“It was developed in France. It is an atypical antidepressant. That works. It cures anxiety, but so does heroin,” Edney said. “And it’s approved in the EU, but luckily it’s not here. But it’s not illegal to sell it here.

“Except in Alabama, it does,” said state health officer Thomas Dobbs.

Lawmakers passed legislation banning tianeptine in 2021, according to the Energy Institute of Alabama.

Edney urged people to avoid the substance, saying it could be especially difficult for people with a predisposition to addiction and those with a history of opioid abuse.

“If you take more than what should be recommended, then you’re going to over-activate these newer opioid agonists. And if you have the predisposition — the genetic disposition to addiction — that’s enough to activate you,” he said. “And people won’t stay on tianeptine… They’ll soon be on painkillers or heroin and fentanyl.”

“And then on the other side we see people coming in who are addicted to heroin or fentanyl and they’re trying to deal with withdrawal, and it just won’t work.”

The HAN says the age range of cases reported to poison control is between 32 and 46 and mostly white males.

However, the drug is not prohibited for children, with gas station attendants generally leaving it to determine who can and cannot buy it.

“I have a problem with people with addictions and adults who have it…but kids can come in and buy these things, it’s so scary,” said Dr Jennifer Bryan, also from MSMA. “It’s so scary.”

“And think about the toxicity. Imagine that a drug like Lexapro made you vibrate and you decided to start taking 30 Lexapro a day. Something is going to happen,” Edney said. “That’s what happens with tianeptine.”

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