On November 2020, pharmaceutical giant Purdue Pharma pled guilty to criminal charges leveled at the organization for its role in causing the Opioid Crisis ravaging the United States. InAs part of the pharma’s guilty plea, the company will face a $3.54 billion fine; it has already paid over $225 million of a $2 billion forfeiture case.
However, these amounts are only a fraction of the money Purdue Pharma and the Sackler family, the people who own the company, made form fomenting the epidemic. The company filed for bankruptcy last year under heavy fire from litigators, although they only settled these cases for a total of $10 billion. The company earned over $30 billion from the sales of OxyContin, the substance that launched the crisis.
But how did America get to this crisis? How did it all begin? Here’s a brief history of the Opioid Crisis and its tragic effect on the people of the United States.
The Problem with Painkillers
It’s difficult to pinpoint the seeds that would grow into the Opioid Crisis. But one starting point could be the American Pain Society’s campaign in 1996. During an address, the president of the organization labeled “pain as the fifth vital sign,” that doctors should also monitor their patient’s pain levels alongside other sings such as heart rate and breathing.
Prior to this campaign, there was much debate that hospitals in the United States were under-treating pain in patients. Doctors were very careful when prescribing painkillers, especially medication that had narcotic properties. In this period, medical professionals believed that the key to treating addiction was to prevent it from happening in the first place.
However, this led to people living with chronic pain having to struggle with each day. Among these people were veterans who had received chronic injuries during the Gulf War. With the American Pain Society’s campaign, medical professionals included pain among their concerns. A commission mandated that doctors should prescribe pain medication for their patients. The only thing left was finding an appropriate medication with reduced risk of addiction.
In 1996, Purdue Pharma first released OxyContin, a pill featuring extended release oxycodone. Purdue Pharma went on a campaign blitz to put the pill out in the market. The company’s armies of pharmaceutical sales representatives presented OxyContin as the next miracle drug. It claimed that the pill’s extended release of painkiller medication made it less likely for patients to get hooked on the drug. The company also encouraged doctors to liberally prescribe the medication for all sorts of conditions. Why wait and wonder how long does Advil last when you can have your patient pop in an OxyContin?
Thanks to a combination of aggressive marketing, misleading information and relentless determination, Purdue Pharma flooded the market with OxyContin. Because doctors were told it wasn’t as addictive as it really was, they prescribed it freely, leading to an untold number of addictions. In 1997, there were only approximately 670,000 prescriptions for OxyContin. In less than five years, that number ballooned into a whopping 6.2 million prescriptions. And so the Opioid Epidemic began.
The Effect of the Epidemic
For the past 18 years, the Opioid Crisis began to increase, it’s early years relatively unnoticed by medical professionals and law enforcement agencies. By the time agencies took notice, the effects were already catastrophic.
Because of misleading information and outright lies, doctors have grown reliant on OxyContin over the past few years. It’s prescribed for teenagers who get into accidents, older adults who’ve had major operations and adults who have chronic pain conditions. And since people are unaware of the highly addictive properties of the drug, they may not take warnings seriously and overmedicate themselves, eventually causing addiction.
According to some estimates, over 130 peopledie from opioid overdose every day. Opioid overdose is one of the unpleasant deaths imaginable. The symptoms of opioid overdose include losing control of the body and going limp, the slow shut down of the respiratory and circulatory systems and vomiting. One agency claims that over 2 million Americans are abusing their opioid medications. OxyContin is also just a gateway drug, opening the way for people to seek even more illicit substances such as fentanyl, which is a more potent and deadly concoction.
Purdue Pharma’s admission of guilt is just one step to addressing the epidemic. Although bringing the company to justice and having the people responsible answer for their crimes is an important step, there’s still so much to do. Finding viable alternatives to opioids is one step, as well as educating people on the dangers of misusing their prescriptions.