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The opioid epidemic continues to ravage the United States. Ninety-one people die every day in the U.S. from opioid overdose. Deaths from synthetic opioids doubled in 2016. In Ohio, where opioid overdoses are rampant, one coroner's office ran out of room to store bodies. Deaths resulting from the opioid crisis have been compared to the H.I.V. epidemic at its peak. It may only get worse in 2017.
And the corporations that sell, distribute, and prescribe opioids continue to profit. Drug companies alone made $9.6 billion from opioid prescriptions in 2015, and billions more from drugs used to treat addiction, overdose and side effects from opioid abuse. According to the Washington Post, "If opioid addiction disappeared tomorrow, it would wipe billions of dollars from the drug companies’ bottom lines."
What are opioids?
Opioids are powerful painkillers, often prescribed after surgery or a traumatic injury.
Commonly prescribed opioids include:
- Oxycodone (brand names like OxyContin®)
- Hydrocodone (Vicodin®)
- Hydromorphone (Dilaudid)
- Fentanyl (Actiq®, Duragesic®).
Although opioids can be very effective for short-term pain relief, some people who use opioids can easily become addicted or develop dangerous habits of using the drugs. A U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention report showed that a person with a one-day opioid prescription had a 6% risk of using opioids a year later. Longer prescriptions made it more likely that opioid users would continue using the drugs. A New England Journal of Medicine review of opioid literature found that continued use of opioids nearly guaranteed development of physical dependence and tolerance, increasing the risk of overdose. Complicating matters, many physicians have admitted that they are unsure of how to prescribe opioids or how to identify opioid addiction.
Why should drug companies and prescribers be held responsible?
While it is true that prescribed opioids are F.D.A. approved, lawsuits have alleged that some pharmaceutical companies have engaged in negligent practices or deceptive advertising of their products. A Pacific Standard article describes some of the ways that pharmaceutical companies and doctors advertised the drugs to their patients. One company, Purdue Pharma, the makers of OxyContin, held "pain conferences" where they paid doctors to speak and gave out coupons for free prescriptions of OxyContin for doctors to give their patients. In 2007, the U.S. Department of Justice ordered Purdue to pay $600 million to resolve charges that they deceptively marketed OxyContin. OxyContin still has billions of dollars of sales each year.
Purdue remains at the center of many lawsuits attempting to deal with the opioid crisis. The city of Everett, Washington's suit against Purdue Pharma claims that Purdue diverted OxyContin into black markets and knowingly sold to "obviously suspicious physicians" in service of spreading the drug around the city. A Los Angeles Times investigation of Purdue suggests that even after the 2007 fines that Purdue still encourages doctors to prescribe what the LA Times calls "dangerously high" doses of OxyContin.
Purdue is not the only company that has come under fire. Ohio's Attorney General filed a lawsuit in May 2017 against several manufacturers and distributors of opioids, including Purdue, Cephalon, Teva Pharmaceutical Industries, Johnson & Johnson and Endo Pharmaceuticals. This lawsuit alleges that these companies downplayed the risk of addiction when using opioids and engaged in campaigns of advertising to counter medical understanding of opioids and encourage increased prescriptions.
Have there been any recent opioid-related settlements?
Some drugmakers have settled lawsuits alleging that they " failed to report suspicious drug orders" or " deceptively marketed a fentanyl-based cancer pain drug for off-label uses." However, these are government settlements that are unlikely to pay directly for the costs of individuals or families that suffered from opioid abuse.
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