It is a story that is all too familiar. A loved one, or maybe even yourself, gets hurt in an accident. Part of treatment includes a prescription to manage the pain, a prescription for an opioid. The United States saw a dramatic increase in the amount of opioids being prescribed and used in the early 1990s, and those numbers have continued to rise at an alarming rate. What was originally described as a non-addictive, safe way to treat chronic pain has now been shown to be anything but safe. According to the CDC, more than 200,000 people have died since pharmaceutical companies began to push opioids as the main source of pain relief in the ‘90s. In 2017 alone there were over 70,000 reports of drug overdoses that led to death. As pain relievers, opioids are designed to be a sedative, meaning the effect they have on brain in high doses can lead to respiratory failure and death.
The vast majority of those who suffer from an opioid addiction began with a small prescription designed to aid in the pain relief for routine problems; small surgeries, dental operations, chronic pain from strain or injury. It does not matter how small the prescription is, many people develop almost instant addictions to the drugs. Before information was widespread, and unfortunately still today even with proper understanding of how the drugs work, many doctors and dentists would refill a pain medicine prescription without judging if they are doing more harm than good. As the addiction becomes worse, many people turn to the black market for their fix. The black market was flooded with different opioids in the late 90s and into the 21st century. New investigations are pointing to the illegal actions taken by the drug manufacturers and distributors.
Until recently the focus has been on the doctors prescribing the opioids and the lack of education and awareness in America. These are still key issues and extensive research is being done to find alternative pain relief that will not cause addiction and death. However, in recent months states have been filing lawsuits against the big pharma companies; including Endo International, Janssen Pharmaceuticals, Teva, Allergan, and Purdue Pharma. Purdue Pharma, the company who created OxyContin, has fought the investigators at every turn, and for good reason. As documents surrounding the lawsuit are leaked to the press it is becoming clear that these companies had a much better understanding of the addictive nature of opioids than they were telling the public. Some memos talk about a “Project Tango” that, while never implemented, acknowledged the addictiveness of opioids and planned to take advantage of that fact to profit from the dependency.
States and individuals are also facing a different target. Arkansas, New York, and New Mexico have all recently joined the wave of lawsuits against opioid distributors. By law the distributors are required to flag any suspicious activity or orders being placed, and they did, but not enough. Arkansas specifically is the face of this new set of lawsuits, claiming that in 2016 enough opioids were delivered to the state that every man, woman and child could have 78 doses. The lawsuit claims that while distributors reported 14 suspicious orders the companies knew about 1,400 other suspicious orders that they did not report. By federal law, all spikes in orders or cash payments must be reported.
The opioid crisis that is plaguing the US comes down to pure greed and misinformation. Companies at every point in the manufacturing and distribution of opioids have purposefully lied and reported false data in order to convince America that these drugs are safe. Then they hid and broke federal laws in order to create more of the pills than should be needed so that they could flood the black market with them as well. These companies are profiting off the lives they are ending, but hopefully will soon be brought to justice.