New York Magazine had a great article on the epidemic of opioid deaths and who and what is to blame.
“During the worst year of the HIV/AIDS crisis, 43,000 Americans lost their lives to the virus. In 2015, 52,000 died of a drug overdose. Never in recorded history had narcotics killed so many Americans in a single year; the drug-induced death toll was so staggering, it helped reduce life expectancy in the United States for the first time since 1993.”
The article suggests that “a great deal of blame belongs to our system of pharmaceutical patents, and the sociopathic greed that it incentivizes.” The for profit pharmaceuticals companies spend upwards of $200 million a year lobbying Congress to ensure that no profit-reducing regulations are imposed on them.
Pharmaceutical research is an expensive and uncertain endeavor therefore the government provides pharmaceutical companies with a motivation for researching new drugs — and a means of recouping losses from failed experiments — by offering those companies a temporary monopoly on newly discovered medications. This formula for pharmaceutical innovation has many downsides including legal price-gouging that patent monopolies enable and concealment of the harmful effects of their products.
“American doctors have been free to prescribe morphine and other generic opioid painkillers since the early 20th century. But they started prescribing such narcotics at drastically higher rates in the mid-1990s, when Purdue Pharma patented OxyContin, and began aggressively marketing the drug to doctors and patients.”
The problem with this focus is that there’s little evidence that treating chronic pain with opioids is effective — and a lot of evidence that it’s dangerous. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention have concluded that there is “insufficient evidence” that opioids provide effective pain relief when taken for a period of longer than three months.
A recent study by the Center for Economic and Policy Research found that the total cost of OxyContin abuse in the U.S. between 1998 and 2007 — as measured by spending on “abuse treatment, medical complications, productivity loss (minus mortality), and criminal justice proceedings” — totaled $38.6 billion.
The CDC has also concluded that roughly a quarter of those who use opioids on a long-term basis become addicted. But you can make a lot of money selling dope to addicts; and Mundipharma has shown little deference to the CDC’s findings.
In 2007, Purdue and three of its executives pleaded guilty to federal charges of misbranding drugs — and were forced to pay a $635 million fine (a sum far lower than their profit of $35 billion). But by then, 29,600 Americans had already died of OxyContin overdoses – and the notion that opioids were a low-risk treatment for chronic pain had become widespread.