Last month, two landmark resolutions were reached with respect to the nation’s opioid epidemic. Purdue Pharma and Johnson & Johnson have been required to pay millions of dollars for their roles in America’s addiction to prescription painkillers. Over 2,000 lawsuits on this issue have currently been leveled at various drug makers. But what was their role in the crisis, and will this trend continue?
Why Are Pharmaceutical Giants Under Fire?
The groundwork for the opioid epidemic was laid in the 1980s, when physicians sought to more effectively treat chronic and acute pain. Various states passed intractable pain treatment acts, which eliminated the threat of prosecution for doctors who addressed patient pain through the use of controlled substances.
In the past, opioid medications were prescribed primarily for short-term uses, such as post-surgical pain relief or to make patients with terminal conditions more comfortable. This changed when pharmaceutical companies and others began to spread information that these drugs were safer and less addictive than was previously believed. One letter to the editor of the New England Journal of Medicine in 1980 reported that of over 11,000 people who were prescribed opioids, only four became addicted. There was no evidence provided to substantiate these claims. Another widely cited study, this one with a sample size of just 38 people, recommended using these drugs to treat chronic pain independent of terminal conditions such as cancer.
Opioids were prescribed more and more often throughout the 1990s, a trend which skyrocketed when companies released new opioid-based products. Most famous among these was OxyContin, an extended-release version of oxycodone, manufactured by Purdue Pharma.
Drug manufacturers promoted their products heavily. Their approaches included:
- Lobbying lawmakers
- Sponsoring continued education courses for medical professionals
- Funding professional and patient organizations
- Sending representatives to visit individual doctors
- Claiming that OxyContin was less addictive than other opioid painkillers
In a 2007 lawsuit, Purdue Pharma admitted that they had known that the drug was addictive. Doctors and patients remained unaware of this fact until that time, and medical professionals did not question the information they were given from pharmaceutical representatives or Purdue-sponsored courses.
The drug epidemic has had three distinct phases. The first was the introduction of prescription opioids into public consciousness. Next, heroin became more common, as an affordable alternative to prohibitively expensive medications. Today, cheaper and more potent synthetic opioids like fentanyl have begun to become a serious problem. All three of these factors continue to wreak havoc on the public. For the reasons stated above, many states have begun seeking restitution for drug companies’ contributions to this public health issue.
Responses from Drug Makers
In the face of many state-driven opioid lawsuits, Purdue and its controlling officers have consistently denied allegations that they utilized deceptive marketing practices to downplay the addictive potentials of OxyContin.
Paradoxically, in contrast with their continued denial, Purdue Pharma has offered a sum of between $10 billion and $12 billion in order to settle the thousands of lawsuits that have been lodged against them. They have been represented by David Sackler, a member of the Sackler family (Purdue’s owners) at negotiations that took place in Cleveland, Ohio, earlier this year. The new settlement would include a plan for the pharmaceutical giant to file for Chapter 11 bankruptcy and then re-form as a “for-profit public benefit trust.”
“The Sackler family built a multibillion-dollar drug empire based on addiction,” said New Jersey Attorney General Gubrir Gerwal, as his state announced its lawsuit. But Purdue and the Sackler family have instead attempted to frame the proposed settlements as a quicker way to aid those impacted by opioid addiction.
“While Purdue Pharma is prepared to defend itself vigorously in the opioid litigation, the company has made clear that it sees little good coming from years of wasteful litigation and appeals,” the corporation said in one statement to NBC News. “The people and communities affected by the opioid crisis need help now. Purdue believes a constructive global resolution is the best path forward, and the company is actively working with the state attorneys general and other plaintiffs to achieve this outcome.”
Opioid Addiction Treatment
Time will tell whether the assembled plaintiffs will take the deal offered by Purdue. Regardless, the company plans to declare bankruptcy, and the victims of the opioid crisis will require rehabilitation, medication, and comprehensive care. It is more important than ever for the public to become educated about the dangers of these highly addictive medications.
If you or a loved one has become dependent on opioids, contact Lakeside-Milam at 800-231-4303. We have provided effective, affordable alcohol and drug treatment to over 100,000 people since 1983.