Rodrigo Duterte
Get more with myNEWS
A personalised news feed of stories that matter to you
Learn more
Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte stands next to Chinese businessman Huang Rulun during last month’s inauguration of a drug abuse treatment and rehabilitation centre in Fort Magsaysay, north of Manila. Photo: Reuters

Duterte urged to come clean on health after his fentanyl drug use draws concern

Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte’s admission that he used a powerful painkiller has prompted concern about his health, with lawmakers urging him Sunday to undergo a medical examination and disclose the results.

Duterte on Monday revealed that he used to take fentanyl, often prescribed for cancer pain and other chronic ailments, because of a spinal injury from previous motorcycle accidents.

He however said his doctor made him stop using it on learning he was “abusing the drug” by using more than the prescribed patches. However, he denied he was addicted.

The firebrand leader has attracted controversy over his war against suspected users of illegal drugs, which has claimed thousands of lives, and his incendiary language against the United States and the United Nations.

Lawmakers said Duterte’s remarks revived speculation about his health, including rumours during the election campaign that he suffered from cancer - a claim Duterte repeatedly denied.

Philippines President Rodrigo Duterte shows images of alleged criminal Philippine politicians during his speech at a meeting with the Filipino community in Singapore last week. Photo: AFP

“To end this speculation, it would be better if his physician explains how the president manages the pain that he suffers,” Duterte ally congressman Carlos Zarate said.

Zarate added that a medical bulletin would clarify the state of Duterte’s health, as fentanyl became controversial after pop legend Prince died of an accidental overdose of the drug in April.

Counterfeit pills containing fentanyl were found in a bottle at Prince’s house falsely labelled as “Watson 385”.

Fentanyl, highly potent and addictive, is 80 to 100 times more powerful than morphine and about 40 to 50 times more potent than 100 per cent pure heroin.

The drug belongs to a larger class of drugs, known as opioid painkillers, that includes prescription drugs like OxyContin and Vicodin. These drugs work by capitalising on our body’s natural pain-relief system and can result in a surging sense of euphoria.

Two milligrams of pure fentanyl - the size of about four grains of salt - is enough to kill an average-size adult.
A woman hugs her husband, next to a placard which reads ‘I'm a pusher’, who was shot dead by an unidentified gunman in Manila in July. Duterte has attracted controversy over his war against suspected users of illegal drugs, which has claimed thousands of lives, and his incendiary language against the United States and the United Nations. File photo: AFP

Last week, nine people died from fentanyl opioid overdoses in the Canadian city of Vancouver in just 24 hours.


The spike in deaths comes as Canada - like its neighbour the United States - has been struggling to contain an overdose crisis that claimed 2,000 lives last year, with even more expected in 2016.

An outspoken Duterte critic, Senator Leila de Lima, supported Zarate’s call for clarity on the president’s health, and how he manages his pain.

“It is not just the illness itself that we should be worried about, but also the impact or side effects that the medications he is taking may have, especially on his lucidity and ability to make decisions with a clear mind.”

Watch: Duterte says he personally killed people

At 71, Duterte is the oldest president of the Philippines.


He has said he suffers from daily migraine and ailments including Buerger’s disease, a cardiovascular illness characterised by inflammation of blood vessels usually due to smoking.

Duterte cited ill health as the reason for skipping events during summits abroad. In Cambodia last week he said he might not even finish his six-year term.

Another critic, Senator Antonio Trillanes, said Duterte’s admission that he took more than the prescribed fentanyl dosage showed he “qualified as a drug addict”.


However Duterte on Saturday denied any addiction.

“When there’s regularity, my friend, when you take it and when there’s a monkey on your back, that’s addiction,” he told a BBC reporter.

Doctors said fentanyl was regulated in the Philippines, with physicians needing a licence from the drug agency to prescribe it.


“The ones using (fentanyl) are usually people with harrowing pain or terminal diseases. Doctor monitoring manages risks of addiction,” said Leo Olarte, former president of the Philippine Medical Association.

“A medical bulletin is good so the public won’t be rattled.”

This article appeared in the South China Morning Post print edition as: is Duterte hooked on prescribed painkiller?