All About the Opioid Epidemic

Vivi Kaufman

For decades, Purdue Pharma purposefully minimized the dangers of prescription opioids, which was one of the factors in the opioid crisis. Purdue Pharma is a privately owned pharmaceutical company best known for making OxyContin, an opioid painkiller. Their misleading marketing allowed doctors to over-prescribe the “miracle” drug, which created excess OxyContin tablets that circulated the US. The new drug was highly addictive and caused a spike in deaths from drug overdoses. The opioid crisis began and Purdue Pharma’s profits skyrocketed.

Purdue Pharma released its new drug OxyContin to the masses in 1996. The company made a multitude of misleading claims about the risks of OxyContin in an effort to increase their sales. In one video advertisement, a Purdue Pharma representative claimed “opioids should be used much more than they are for patients in pain” and that it is the “best strongest pain medication” on the market. In a print advertisement for OxyContin, Purdue claimed “drug abuse is not a problem in patients with pain for whom the opioid is appropriately indicated”. Purdue Pharma advertised Oxycontin as a non-addictive medication even though they knew the risks of the opioids they were selling. One headline in particular was used to back up Purdue’s claims: “Addiction Rare in Patients Treated with Narcotics.” The headline was taken out of context from an article about hospital patients with no history of addiction. Purdue used this headline as propaganda.

 In a public statement, Purdue Pharma pled guilty to charges of “Misbranding”: 

“Nearly six years and longer ago, some employees made…certain statements about OxyContin to some health care professionals that were inconsistent with the F.D.A.-approved prescribing information for OxyContin and the express warnings it contained about risks associated with the medicine. The statements also violated written company policies requiring adherence to the prescribing information.

We accept responsibility for those past misstatements and regret that they were made.”

Doctors prescribed an excess of opioid pills for two reasons: they didn’t know the extent of opioid risks due to Purdue Pharma’s misleading marketing, so they oversold the new “miracle pills,” and doctors who knew about the dangers wanted to profit off of the pills, so they sold them anyway. According to a study from Harvard Medical School, in 2014 and 2015, opioid manufacturers paid hundreds of doctors sums in the six figures, while thousands more were paid over $25,000. The more pills doctors prescribed, the more they got paid. Harvard and CNN did a collaborative research project and found a direct correlation between the amount of money doctors were receiving, and the amount of opioid prescriptions they wrote. 

Dr. Michael Barnett, assistant professor of health policy and management at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health, spoke on this trend:

 “I don’t know if the money is causing the prescribing or the prescribing led to the money, but in either case, it’s potentially a vicious cycle. It’s cementing the idea for these physicians that prescribing this many opioids is creating value.”

Doctors had an incentive to sell more opioids either way. Purdue Pharma started the lucrative opioid business, but many doctors kept the pills circulating. The more opioids that were made, the more were prescribed, and the more were abused by the uninformed public. 

The opioid crisis has plagued the United States for decades. It started in the early 1990’s, when Purdue Pharma started their marketing campaign. In 2017, a total of 191,146,822 opioid prescriptions were dispensed by retail pharmacies; the total opioid prescribing rate was 58.5 prescriptions per 100 persons according to an annual CDC report.. Opioids were given to many people who were unaware of the dangers.

Travis Rieder was a victim of the pharma companies’ abuse, and he shared his experience of opioid withdrawal during a TED Talk. He explained he had gotten into a motorcycle accident in 2015 and was prescribed opioids for the pain. He was given a dosage of 150 mg of OxyContin. After one doctor mentioned he was on too many opioids, Rieder realized no doctors had ever counseled him about the safe amount of opioids, he was just given “lots and lots of prescriptions.” When doctors tried to taper his medication, he went into acute opioid withdrawal. He had stopped eating and he couldn’t sleep. With the insomnia came “desperation and hopelessness.” Through a pained expression and tears in the back of his throat, he told the audience, “I began to believe that I would never recover.” The doctors he contacted suggested “lots of fluids” and told him if the pain was “that bad”, then he could “go back to [his] previous dose for a while.” If Rieder went back to the pre-tapering dosage, how would he ever stop his opioid use? No doctor had a real solution. Doctors were quick to prescribe opioids to him, but after that, Rieder wasn’t their problem. Rieder eventually recovered after months of agony, but thousands of people across America aren’t so lucky. 

This neglect happened on a large scale across the U.S. In 2017 alone, over 17,000 people died from prescription opioid overdoses.  

The Sackler family, owners of Purdue Pharma, have faced over 1,000 lawsuits for “fueling the opioid crisis,” according to an article from CNN. A nationwide case forced Purdue Pharma to declare bankruptcy as part of a $10 billion agreement to settle opioid lawsuits. Pennsylvania’s Attorney General, Josh Shapiro, called the deal a “slap in the face”. He pointed out “it allows the Sackler family to walk away billionaires and admit no wrongdoing.” This agreement failed to alleviate pain felt by thousands of families impacted by the opioid crisis. The Sacker family themselves have profited off the company while becoming detached from the Purdue name. The Sacklers are still making wire transfers into their private accounts from Purdue Pharma, some that total $40 million

Privately owned for profit companies dominate the drug industry, which allows them to get away with mass murder. By promoting addictive products to the public, they are enabling black market drug sales. Travis Rieder’s story was all too common three years ago. Now more and more states are acknowledging the opioid crisis and demanding justice. By holding corporate businesses owners accountable, we can move towards a medicinally equitable future. 

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