According to a study published by the Journal of the American Medical Association, from 2000 to 2015, opioid-involved poisoning deaths erased approximately two and a half months from overall life expectancy at birth in the United States. Other studies, news reports, government agencies, and medical journals are addressing opioid deaths as a public health crisis that cannot be ignored or discounted.
What is the Opioid Epidemic?
Many sources reiterate that the opioid epidemic is not about recreational drug use but rather originated from prescription drugs, manufactured by pharmaceutical companies, and distributed to doctors, who prescribed the drugs to patients.
In the late 1990s, drug manufacturers began to market prescription opioids, which are narcotic painkillers, for chronic pain – including brand-name drugs like Oxycontin and Percocet, and generics like oxycodone and hydrocodone. According to a recent lawsuit, because they were considered too addictive and debilitating for the treatment of chronic pain, opioids were historically used only to treat short-term acute pain or for palliative care. To increase the market for opioids, the drug companies began to falsely deny or trivialize the risk of addiction, according to the complaint in State of New Hampshire v. Purdue Pharma, L.P. The lawsuit asserts that pharmaceutical companies misrepresented that opioids were safe and non-addictive and marketed them for various conditions such as back pain and migraines, with little evidence to support their claims.
In fact, opioids are closely linked to opiates and the terms are sometimes used interchangeably. The term opiates refers to natural substances that are extracted from opium, including morphine and codeine. Opioids work the same as opiates but do not occur naturally. Synthetic opioids are manufactured chemically while semi-synthetic opioids are a hybrid resulting from chemical modifications to natural opiates. Fentanyl and methadone are examples of synthetic opioids. Oxycodone and hydrocodone are examples of semi-synthetic opioids.
Investigative reports assert that drug manufacturers gave false information to pain patients about the effectiveness, duration of relief provided, and addictive properties of prescription opioid drugs, ultimately plunging them into a world of addiction that ravaged families and communities and caused a public health crisis.
Patients trusted their doctors that opioids would alleviate their pain for several hours, and were not addictive, as was represented and marketed by drug companies. In fact, many patients found that any relief from pain did not last as long as claimed, and suffered withdrawal symptoms between doses. And once patients started taking opioids, for some, it was impossible to stop – even after their doctors stopped prescribing opinions in response to licensing or regulatory concerns. Once cut off by their doctors, the now-addicted patients turned to illegal derivative drugs, like heroin. That, in turn, has forced the towns and cities where these patients live to respond to the opioid crisis with public resources. Meanwhile, the drug companies reaped, and continue to reap, financial benefits.
Opioid Multi-District Litigation
Many cities and towns throughout the country are filing lawsuits against pharmaceutical companies and distributors seeking to hold them accountable for the harm caused by the manufacture, distribution and sale of dangerously addictive opioid drugs, including Oxycodone and hydrocodone. The lawsuits assert that drug manufacturers failed to disclose that opioid pain killers are addictive through their marketing strategies targeted toward doctors and patients. For example, the complaint in State of Ohio v. Purdue Pharma, L.P asserts that drug companies placed their desire for profits above the health and well-being of patients and their communities and failed to back their marketing claims with science or medical evidence. According to the lawsuit, when doctors relied on the marketing claims of the drug companies, a healthcare crisis was unleashed with “far-reaching financial, social, and deadly consequences in the State of Ohio.”
In addition to the Ohio lawsuit, several federal courts are hearing cases brought on behalf of counties and cities against distributors as well as manufacturers of opioid drugs. Plaintiffs are seeking to consolidate many of the cases into Multi-District Litigation (MDL).
Should Doctors and Pharmaceutical Companies Be Held Accountable for Opioid Epidemic?
Even after reports and lawsuits alleging millions of patients became addicted to opioid drugs, and were injured and killed by them, drug manufacturers continued to deny or downplay the addictive properties of these freely-prescribed drugs. In fact, the addictive properties of opioids and opiates have been common knowledge for generations. In the U.S., the use of morphine, an opiate, decimated lives following the Civil War. Widely used as a pain killer during the war, veterans arrived home at the end of the war completely and often irrevocably addicted. Yet, in the face of history and facts, manufacturers continue to deny the consequences of their actions and any responsibility for the opioid crisis.
“First, do no harm.” is attributed to the ancient Greek physician Hippocrates.
That should be followed by: “If you do harm, accept responsibility.”