The Role of Pharmaceutical Companies in the Opioid Epidemic

Opioid addiction rates have skyrocketed over the past two decades, costing millions in health insurance costs and lost productivity in the workforce. According to Fortune magazine, an estimated 254 million opioid prescriptions were filled in 2010 alone, enough to medicate every adult in the U. S. for a month on a round-the-clock basis. In that same year, pharmaceutical companies generated revenues of $11 billion from opioid sales alone.

The phrase “opioid epidemic” came about in response to these numbers, no doubt an apt description of how these drugs have taken over the market. The phrase also points to the negative consequences of opioid drugs in so many people’s lives.

As a drug class, opioids offer definite benefits in terms of their ability to relieve pain symptoms of all kinds. The downside to opioid use has to do with the harmful long-term effects these drugs can have on the body and mind.

As of the 1990s, pharmaceutical companies have played an active role in getting these drugs in the marketplace, oftentimes using less than ethical tactics along the way.

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The Opioid Epidemic

Pharmaceutical Companies

It can be argued that the prescription opioid manufacturers have had a role in the opioid addiction crisis.

According to the National Institute on Drug Abuse, the year 2013 saw an estimated 1.9 million Americans struggled with opioid-based substance abuse disorders. Since that time, opioid abuse rates continue to rise with each passing year.

While no one can fault pharmaceutical companies for making money, the opioid epidemic would not exist without the type of tremendous pull these companies have in the marketplace. The major players who took part in creating the opioid epidemic include:

  • Purdue Pharma
  • Abbott Labs
  • Johnson & Johnson
  • Pfizer
  • Novartis
  • Covidien
  • Watson Pharmaceuticals
  • Endo Pharmaceuticals

Over the course of two decades, these companies paved the way for opioids to become the go-to pain treatment medication using a wide range of marketing and advertising tactics.

The Effects of Opioids on the Body

Opioids act as central nervous system depressants, slowing down nerve signal transmissions and blocking pain sensations from reaching the brain. Opioids work by increasing the production of neurotransmitter chemicals at brain cell receptor sites.

While opioids pose little potential for harm when taken as prescribed, the abuse of these drugs sets off a series of damaging effects inside the brain’s chemical workings. The brain easily develops of tolerance for opioid drug effects, which accounts for their high potential for abuse.

As tolerance levels rise, chemical imbalances start to take shape, driving users to ingest increasingly larger drug doses. In effect, anyone who abuses these drugs or remains on them for longer than three months at a time will likely develop an addiction problem in the near future. Once addiction takes hold, a person essentially becomes a slave to the effects of the drug.

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Purdue Pharma

Prior to the 1990s, the use of opioids as a pain treatment was reserved for the most severe forms of pain, such as cancer-related pain symptoms. Medical practitioners were well aware of the strong similarities between opioids and heroin in terms of their addictive properties and so only prescribed opioids as a last resort.

These practices changed in the 1990s in response to Purdue Pharma’s marketing campaign for its top selling drug to date, OxyContin. OxyContin, a powerful opioid drug, was touted as a non-addictive drug suitable for treating most any type of pain symptom.

In 2010, Purdue Pharma generated $3.1 billion dollars off OxyContin sales alone. That being so, the company was eventually found guilty of misleading the public and ordered to pay penalties fines along the lines of $635 million dollars.

America’s Opiate Epidemic: Is There a Solution?

Aggressive Marketing Tactics

Much of today’s opiate epidemic stems from the aggressive marketing tactics used by pharmaceutical companies over the past two decades. According to the New Yorker, companies such as Endo Pharmaceuticals, Purdue Pharma and Johnson & Johnson centered their marketing campaigns on the use of opioids as all-purpose pain treatment medications.

Advertising promotions directed towards physicians appeared in highly regarded medical journals. These companies also sponsored continuing education courses for medical professionals on the benefits of opioid-based treatment approaches.

Other marketing campaigns worked to fund non-profit organizations, such as the American Pain Society and the American Academy of Pain Management with the intention of promoting opioid narcotic prescription practices.

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Lobbyist Groups

Pharmaceutical companies made widespread use of lobbyist groups in their efforts to encourage opioid prescribing practices. One such group, a University of Wisconsin-based organization known as the Pain & Policy Studies Group, received $2.5 million from pharmaceutical companies to promote opioid use and discourage the passing of regulations against opioid use in medical practice.

The Pain & Policy Studies Group wields considerable influence over the nation’s medical schools as well as within the medical field in general. With Purdue Pharma as its largest benefactor, the Pain & Policy Studies Group played a pivotal role in the company’s OxyContin marketing push.

Issues with Regulatory Practices

While pharmaceutical companies no doubt took an active role in creating today’s opioid epidemic, issues surrounding regulatory drug practices left the door wide open for these companies to rebrand opioid treatment uses, according to the U. S. National Library of Medicine. Based on the regulations put forth in the Food, Drug and Cosmetics Act, the U. S. Food & Drug Administration (FDA) must approve all promotional activities for controlled substances, but prior approval is not required to offer a product for sale on the market.

In effect, pharmaceutical companies were permitted to market and sell opioid drugs while waiting for FDA approval knowing full it would take years before this grossly understaffed government agency could get around to reviewing their marketing proposals.

The Effects of the Opioid Epidemic

Over the course of two decades, overdose rates resulting from opioid abuse practices have seen steady increases from year to year. According to the Centers for Disease Control & Prevention, 2010 marks the 11th consecutive year of where overdose death rates involving opioids have increased.

As of 1999, opioid overdose deaths totaled out at 4,030. In 2009, this number rose to 15,597. By 2010, 16,651 people died as a result of opioid overdose. In effect, opioids account for three out of every four prescription-related deaths.

Overall, the opioid epidemic has left countless lives and families in shambles with more and more people trying these drugs for the first time. Meanwhile, opioid prescribing practices continue on unaffected.

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