The long history of opioid abuse in the United States dates back more than a hundred years. It continues in the form of heroin and painkiller abuse, despite many attempts to eliminate it.
The rise in the number of those addicted to OxyContin stems directly from pharmaceutical companies’ influence on the market. One large company in particular used marketing to distort the public’s knowledge and perception of opioid-based painkillers in order to keep sales numbers high. It claimed the drug provided 12-hour relief with a single pill, an enticing offer to many suffering from chronic pain.
The truth about the dangers of OxyContin, unfortunately, lies in the details, information which the company omitted.
The Origin Of Oxycontin
In 1996, Purdue Pharma released a new opioid-based formula designed to provide long-lasting relief from pain.
Gone were the days, the company bragged, of patients consuming multiple pills a day to find relief from pain. The promise, backed with a robust marketing campaign, hit home.
Prescriptions for painkilling medications jumped by 8 million from 1995 to 1996 as patients began clamoring for the new wonder drug.
Two years later, Purdue Pharma changed tactics. It directed a new campaign at medical professionals using a video promotion that showed six people claiming relief from chronic pain after they received OxyContin.
The company put this material in almost 15,000 locations for use in patient education libraries. The campaign was effective, and the year following the video’s release saw an increase of 11 million opioid painkiller prescriptions over the previous year.
Purdue Pharma did not relent, buying ads in medical journals across the country in 2000. In 2001, The Joint Commission, a nonprofit group charged with determining hospital standards and accrediting medical centers, released a book directed at doctors wherein the commission argued that addiction posed no significant risk to patients taking opioid-based painkillers.
Purdue Pharma paid for the book to be published. Other sources released similar information, increasing the chances the information would be taken as accurate.
However, all was not well for Purdue Pharma. In 2007, the company faced charges of misbranding the drug and hiding its potential for addiction. Three top-level executives pleaded guilty and the company paid $635 million in a settlement with the U.S. government.
Purdue Pharma returned to the opioid scene in 2010, unveiling a new tamper-resistant version of OxyContin that the company claimed was a stronger deterrent to misuse because it was extremely difficult to crush. The corporation claimed this would reduce the number of people snorting or injecting it. Surveys revealed a 23 percent drop in the drug’s abuse in the next two years, but experts pointed out that other factors contributed to that decrease.
Many abusers reported changing opioid types or simply switching to heroin, a cheaper, more readily available option. Nearly a quarter of the people questioned said that the deterrent properties did not slow their abuse of the drug.
The manufacturers of OxyContin, as well as other companies selling opioids like Percocet, maintained the safety claims of their products and insisted that the drug, when properly used, continued to play a major role in pain relief.
The Current State of Opioid Abuse
In March of 2016, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) stepped in, making bigger moves to combat this epidemic. The CDC director stated that no other medication used regularly for the relief of a non-fatal condition matched the fatality rate of opioids. The CDC studied the effects opioid drugs had on pain relief and found no significant improvement and potentially a worsening effect.
The CDC’s study concluded that:
- As many as 26% of patients suffering from chronic pain take prescription opioids.
- 1 in every 550 patients on opioid-based therapy died from causes stemming from opioid use within an average of 2.6 years after initiating treatment.
Presentation to the U.S. Senate
Dr. Nora Volkow presented a report to the Senate Caucus on International Narcotics Control, highlighting several alarming statistics regarding opioid use and abuse:
- Opioid prescriptions rose at meteoric rates from 76 million in 1991 prescriptions to 207 million in 2013.
- Increases in emergency room visits related to opioid abuse climbed during the same time frame, as did the number of patients admitted to rehabilitation for OxyContin addiction.
- By 2015, prescription drug abuse accounted for as much as 10% of Americans over 12 years of age reporting a substance abuse disorder
- As many as one-fifth of individuals who abused heroin developed an addiction from the use of prescription opioids.
- Deaths from overdosing on prescription opioids tripled from 1990 to 2010, when it reached 16,651 deaths.
- By 2002, opioid poisoning accounted for more deaths than heroin or cocaine. In 2015, this number exceeded 20,000, with heroin claiming almost 13,000 more.
- Deaths among women from prescription overdoses increased in excess of 400 percent in the first decade of the 21st century, compared to a 237 percent increase among men.
- Heroin overdose deaths tripled among women from 2010 to 2013, bringing the death rate from drug overdoses to 1 in 100,000 women.
Children Are Affected, Too
Adolescents face an epidemic as well, with the number of adolescents that had a prescription for opioid-related drugs doubling from the mid-1990s to 2007.
More than 275,000 young individuals reported nonmedical use of opioids in 2015, with another 122,000 reporting an addiction problem with the drugs. These children most often received the drugs from a friend or relative passing on unused pills.
Dr. Volkow also reported that the risk for addiction increased when the drug was consumed in a manner that increased the potential for a euphoric high. This included the more common ways of misusing the drug: snorting or injecting, along with drug pill combinations and mixing alcohol with opioid use.
The dangers of these drugs remain strong today, as the country witnesses a continuing rise in the number of deaths and addictions directly tied to opioid abuse. The trend matches the increase in prescriptions of the drug.
Much misinformation still exists about proper dosage. The problem presents a complexity that requires further study. The medication does offer beneficial relief when prescribed and used correctly for those truly in need of pain relief. Yet, it can place the patient at risk for much worse problems.