The Opioid Crisis is one of the most serious public health problems to affect the United States in recent years. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, almost half a million people have died due to opioid overdose in a span of 20 years. These deaths began in three waves, occurring since the introduction of OxyContin to the public.
But how did one opioid painkiller trigger so many deaths? What happened that enabled the epidemic to spread unchecked? And was anyone ever held accountable for the rampant prescriptions and thousands of deaths that resulted in its spread?
Learn the origins and effects of the Opioid Crisis in the United States.
What is OxyContin?
OxyContin is a type of painkiller known as oxycodone that belongs to a class of medicines called opioid analgesics. These painkillers work by altering how your brain translates messages from your body about pain, effectively making pain less intense and more manageable.
OxyContin is also an extended-release type of opioid. This means that the drug is slowly dispersed throughout your body over an extended amount of time, usually a few hours. OxyContin is released throughout your body over 12 hours, which means you shouldn’t take more of it until this period has elapsed.
The drug’s strength and its high tolerance rate means that it’s very easy for people to suddenly become dependent and then addicted to it. As people take more and more OxyContin because of their body adjusting and tolerating the medication, the harder it is to stop taking it. For these reasons, the prescription medicine should have been strictly monitored and only prescribed to people with intense and chronic pain. Even then, it should have been paired with alternative pain management treatments to prevent dependence.
But this was not what happened in the heady days of the late 90s, when OxyContin first made its debut.
Why Did it Become Popular?
According to research, OxyContin was only as effective as other pain medications such as morphine. If this was the case, why was OxyContin so popular? OxyContin was developed by multinational pharmaceutical corporation Purdue in the 90s and released in 1996.
OxyContin was aggressively pushed by Purdue Pharmaceuticals from 1960 to 2001. During that period, the company invited thousands of doctors, healthcare providers and other people in the field to luxurious and all expenses paid conferences.
The company also came up with a complicated and effective marketing plan by using data gathered over the years. They compiled profiles of doctors who were prescribing a lot of painkillers or had a lot of patients who required pain medications. Journalists discovered that this database was so effective they could discover which doctors prescribed the most or the least number of specific drugs in a zip code or even county.
The database was crucial in their marketing plan to identify doctors with many chronic pain patients. Unfortunately, their data didn’t discern which doctors actually had a high volume of these types of patients from doctors who were less rigid when dispensing powerful opioids.
Even the company’s sales representatives were egged on by the company, promising enormous bonuses to employees who could help boost the sale of the drug within their territories. The bonuses could vary from tens of thousands to even hundreds of thousands, providing an incentive for salespeople to push their drugs on any doctor who would care to listen.
Did the Company Lie?
Perhaps the most egregious act of Purdue Pharmaceutical that resulted in the Opioid Crisis was how they grossly misrepresented the facts surrounding their drug. Throughout the years of OxyContin’s early years, the company instructed salespeople to claim that the drug was safe because it had a very small chance of inciting addiction. They also marketed it as an effective and safe pain management medication for non-cancer medical conditions, ensuring that it could reach a greater market.
In a few years, the aggressive marketing push for OxyContin made it possible for millions of people to access this powerful drug with little to no oversight. Soon abusing the drug became widespread. Since doctors and healthcare professionals were told that the drug was safe and non-addictive, many continued to prescribe it even as addiction rates began to climb.
Evidence surfaced that the company knew the effects their drug were having on people and society. And yet they did nothing to stem the tide.
By the time Purdue was called out at their gross disregard for life and well-being brought to light, the opioid epidemic had already claimed hundreds of thousands of lives and ravaged families and communities.
Purdue Pharmaceuticals filed for bankruptcy, dissolved and forced to pay over $4.5 billion to settlements and to address the effects of the epidemic they started. However, the Sackler family, corporate owners of Purdue, remain one of the richest families in the United States and have been absolved of liability for starting one of the worst drug epidemics in the country.