In recent years, accidental deaths have increased dramatically in the United States, rocketing toward the top of statistical charts as a leading cause of death.
Over 130 people die every day in the United States as the result of opioid overdose. That’s less surprising if you also know that close to 30 percent of patients who are prescribed opioid medications end up misusing or abusing them.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimate the economic burden of opioid abuse, which includes healthcare costs, addiction treatment, opioid-related criminality, and lost productivity in the workplace, at nearly $80 billion annually (in the United States alone).
How did we get here?
With almost as much gusto as medical doctors and tobacco companies who promoted cigarettes in the 1930s, pharmaceutical companies spent the 1990s reassuring the entire medical community that opioid pain relievers did not put patients at risk of addiction. In hindsight, it would be ludicrous if it weren’t so tragic.
By 2017, an estimated 1.7 million people in the United States suffered from substance abuse disorders related to opioid prescriptions. That year, 47,000 died from opioid overdose.
Progress has been made in fits and starts. Law enforcement has cracked down on so-called “pill mills” masquerading as pain clinics. In some cases, doctors and pharmacists have been criminally charged. But what about the people who started the country down this route? It seems that, finally, they too are being forced to face the consequences of their actions.
Pills and Precedence
In late August, District Judge Thad Balkman in Cleveland County, Oklahoma ordered megacorp Johnson & Johnson to pay $572 million for its role in the state’s opioid crisis, and the more than 6,000 deaths related to it. Balkman ruled that the company targeted and pressured doctors with the goal of increasing opioid prescription rates, while glossing over the risks.
Teva Pharmaceutical and OxyContin manufacturer Purdue Pharma was found guilty of similar charges this year, eventually reaching $85 million and $270 million settlements with the state of Oklahoma, respectively.
That money won’t bring back lost time, lost relationships, lost health, and certainly not lost lives. However, the rulings are setting an important precedent, with at least 2,000 additional opioid cases pending before federal judges.
History is known to repeat itself, and this probably won’t be the last instance of product manufacturers using deceptive tactics to attempt to fool the medical community (as well as the populace).
However, hopefully, justice being served—even if it’s a small helping—will serve as a deterrent for these sorts of behaviors in the future.