It is no secret that the entire country is suffering through a terrible drug crisis at the moment. The current crisis involves drugs called opioids and, unlike previous drug crises, this one does not involve black market drugs smuggled into the country and sold on the street. This crisis involves prescription medications that are supposed to be tightly controlled, thus limiting their availability via a doctor’s prescription. Unfortunately, in some cases, patients are accumulating multiple prescriptions from multiple doctors and filling them at multiple pharmacies, in order to satisfy their addiction to these substances. According to some estimates, more than 12 million people currently abuse prescription opioids and many of them play the system for all they are worth.
How We Got to the Opioid Crisis
The manufacture and distribution of opioids began just over 20 years ago, when Purdue Pharm began to produce OxyContin back in 1996. OxyContin is a time-release pill containing oxycodone, an opium derivative that was intended to relieve pain. At the time, there was no peer-reviewed scientific research on the drug, but a single letter to the editor published in the New England Journal of Medicine, claiming that only one percent of patients treating pain with narcotics would actually become addicted.
Almost from the beginning, Oxycontin was a success, with sales increasing from $45 million in 1996 to $1.5 billion in 2002. Estimated sales for the drug for 2016 were about $1.3 billion. The total sales for all 20 FDA-approved opioid medications last year was estimated at about $8.6 billion.
Of course, as we all know by now, these sales are causing problems. In 2015, the last year for which real figures are known, about 20 million Americans suffered from substance abuse disorders, with two-thirds of them addicted to opioid pain relievers. According to the Surgeon General’s office, there were 289 million prescriptions for opioids written that year, covering one-third of the U.S. population. As a result, in 2014, more than 47,000 people died from drug overdoses, with 60 percent of them dying from opioid use. By 2016, it is estimated that 175 people were dying every day from prescription opioids. In all, opioid overdose deaths have more than doubled in the last 10 years. The total cost of the opioid crisis, including healthcare spending, criminal justice spending, lost productivity and the loss of live, is estimated to be more than $500 billion per year.
How to Solve the Crisis
According to many healthcare experts, the opioid crisis was created by the drug manufacturers themselves. For example, a recent report on “60 Minutes” that the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) began to freeze drug shipments that posed an “imminent danger” to the community, but that several members of Congress worked with drug companies to pass a law in 2016 that essentially undermined the DEA’s efforts.
Now, a number of lawsuits have been filed in several states against three major drug distributors for their role in the opioid supply chain. The lawsuits accuse the pharmaceutical companies of negligence as well as aggressive sales tactics, in order to keep their profits high. In addition, 35 state attorneys general have combined to embark on a multi-state investigation into the practices of a number of opioid manufacturers. In addition, several congressional investigations are underway.
The most concerning aspect of this crisis from the perspective of the drug makers, however, are the lawsuits. It’s too early to tell which way this will go. On the one hand, Big Pharma could be hit just as hard as Big Tobacco back in the 1990s. In 1998, cigarette manufacturers were forced to settle 46 state public health-related lawsuits for a total of $248 billion. Of course, these lawsuits could also go the way of the many lawsuits filed against gun manufacturers over the years. Some legal experts point out that pain medications are lawful drugs that have been approved by the federal government and which are heavily regulated.
Of course, cigarettes were also legal when Big Tobacco paid through the nose for their excesses. So far, the litigation against Big Pharma is just starting and could take many years to resolve either way. For now, there is a crisis going on that is impacting the health of millions. That means the only real solution to the crisis could very well be through legislation. That doesn’t mean there will be no more lawsuits, of course. In fact, there are likely to be many more.