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Since the early 2000s, overdose deaths attributed to prescription painkiller usage have increased several times over. Through this growth and its ramifications, including more crime, communities adding more emergency, police and recovery services and the coinciding heroin epidemic, states and cities have decided they can’t completely shoulder these financial burdens. In response, they have filed lawsuits against drug manufacturers and distributors, alleging they share responsibilities in creating this crisis. As of fall 2017, 25 communities of varying sizes, from towns and counties through states, have filed these civil suits with the goal of getting entities from drug corporations through local pharmacies to acknowledge their role.
In response, company representatives have denied any wrongdoing, alleging those who’ve become addicted or overdosed haven’t taken these prescriptions correctly and stating furthermore that they’ve implemented preventative measures to prevent these drugs from becoming black-market commodities. As a common line of defense, these entities claim that, once a patient takes a prescription home, they can no longer be held responsible.
Yet, between 2000 and 2015, prescription drugs have been behind 180,000 overdose deaths – statistically, three times the number of soldiers who died in Vietnam – and led to thousands more picking up and fatally overdosing from other opioids, like heroin and Fentanyl. For the latter scenario, the connection has been attributed to manufacturers’ restrictions, painkiller addiction and the increased ease of finding these illegal substances in both cities and suburbs.
As the crisis shows no signs of stopping, these communities, spread from New England through the Midwest and the South, have been picking up the pieces: Handling high unemployment and decreased economic productivity rates, broken families, sharp increases in crime, addiction programs, overdose services, more demands at the local morgue and greater need for law enforcement.
In these lawsuits against McKesson, Johnson & Johnson, CVS, doctors and similar entities, these communities allege these woes all stem from fraudulent marketing to the public, failing to report unnaturally large orders of prescription painkillers placed by pharmacies and negligently prescribing these highly addictive medications. Furthermore, claimants state that wholesale distributors in particular violated the federal Controlled Substances Act by failing to report and respond to purchasing patterns reflective of addiction and illegal distribution.
These large-scale lawsuits, as well as many smaller claims, reflect one national trend: That the companies that once stated Oxycontin wasn’t addictive need to be held responsible for years of fraudulently marketing and pushing these strong substances on both medical professionals and the unsuspecting public.
For those old enough to recall, doctors rarely prescribed prescription pain medications in the 1980s, only giving limited doses for cancer and end-of-life treatments. By the mid-1990s, Purdue Pharma, the manufacturer of OxyContin, brought to light the issue of chronic pain. As such, the FDA approved OxyContin in 1995, and from 1996 through 2002, its sales increased from as few as 300,000 prescriptions per year to 7.2 million, generating $1.5 billion annually in the process and resulting in six-figure bonuses for its representatives.
However, the company’s representatives used less-than-forthright marketing tactics, keeping a database of and targeting high-prescribing doctors, conducting “pain conferences” with paid spokespeople and using medical journal advertisements. Sales reps further touted its small addiction risk – less than one percent – and claimed it didn’t even cause a “buzz.” Simultaneously, Purdue developed stronger prescription painkillers, which came with even higher risks. Further creating a sense of withdrawal for patients, Purdue told doctors Oxycontin’s effects lasted just 12 hours. For many, the medication wore off before this mark, thus causing patients to reach for a second or third pill too soon.
By 2007, the drug’s strong addiction potential and Purdue’s tactics finally received some attention. Nine years later, the company also settled with the state of Kentucky over Medicaid fraud concerning its medications, including OxyContin.
Over this period, the number of prescriptions for opioids had increased four-fold, with related deaths going up proportionally. In response, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention released a statement to medical professionals, discouraging doctors from prescribing these medications for their highly addictive potential and overdose issues. The document further claims this class of drugs is just as addictive as heroin – in fact, patients may become hooked in as few as 10 days – and aren’t as effective in treating long-term pain as they’re touted to be. Additionally, a significant percentage of those who become addicted eventually switch over to heroin.
Currently, an estimated two million Americans suffer from an opioid addiction, with 55,000 dying yearly from an overdose. In fact, drug-related overdoses have become the leading cause of death for those under 50 years of age, with opioids responsible for roughly 60 percent.
Yet, while Connecticut has some of the country’s highest opioid-related emergency hospital visits and inpatient stays, the crisis has hit Appalachia and the Midwest the hardest. Demographically, those affected tend to be those who work or who have worked in a blue-collar job, those who’ve been injured on the job or those who live in regions with less access to drug rehabilitation programs.
Types of Opioids
Opioids – whether a prescribed or an illegal substance – are narcotics that bind to the body’s opioid receptors to reduce or block pain sensations. In the present, doctors frequently prescribe them to patients recovering from surgery, those who’ve experienced a serious sports injury, or those who’ve just been through a major car accident. Although OxyContin’s longevity on the market makes it one of the most mentioned, other commonly prescribed ones include:
- Oxycodone, one of the most recognizable, goes by brand names like OxyContin, Roxicodone, Percocet, Oxecta, Endocet, OxyIR, Percolone, Dazidox, Endocodone, Oxaydo, Percodan and Xtampza ER.
- Hydrocodone, used alone or in conjunction with acetaminophen, is sold under more common names like Vicodin, Lortab, Norco, Lorcet, Anexsia, Ceta Plus, Hycet, Maxidone, Stagesic and Zydone. Many of these drugs come with additional liver damage side effects.
- Methadone, sold under brands Methadose, Diskets and Dolophine, is typically prescribed for severe pain and heroin withdrawal.
- Fentanyl is an extremely powerful painkiller estimated to be 100 times more powerful than morphine. The drug is administered as a pain patch or sprayed underneath the tongue, and is sold under brands Abstral, Actiq, Duragesic, Fentora and Onsolis.
- Morphine, going by names DepoDur, Astramorph and Duramorph, is another drug for treating severe pain. However, with it comes a very high risk of dependency.
- Hydromorphone, going by names Dilaudid and Exalgo, is roughly five times as powerful as oxycodone and is typically prescribed in an extended-release format for chronic pain.
- Oxymorphone, sold under Opana and Opana ER, is used with anesthesia and for anxiety treatment.
Painkiller addictions may start as innocuously as an emergency room visit for a sprained wrist and soon get out of control, tearing apart families in the process. If prescription painkillers have affected your or a loved one’s life, it’s time to hold the drug manufacturers and doctors accountable.