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The America Society of Addiction Medicine released figures stating that more than 2.5 million Americans struggled with opioid addiction in 2015 alone, and that 4 out of 5 of those addicted first began using prescription medications, like Oxycontin, before moving onto cheaper, stronger, and more easily accessible narcotics such as heroin and fentanyl.
Oxycontin was first marketed to doctors as being a safer, less addictive form of pain management treatment. Although its original use was intended for end-of-life patients (I.E. those suffering from end-stage cancer), it gained momentum in the prescription to those suffering from acute injuries and conditions (broken bones, athletic injuries and back pain). By the early 2000s the opioid epidemic was in full swing, and it raged on, reaching epic proportions. According to the CDC (www.cdc.gov), drug overdose rates had reached record highs by 2017, resulting in more than 66,000 deaths. Unlike previous public health crises (think the AIDS or crack epidemic decades prior), the opioid crisis has impacted all demographics indiscriminately. Where as other public health emergencies had been limited to inner cities or specific cultural groups, the opioid epidemic spread quickly through urban, suburban and rural areas alike, claiming the lives of individuals including celebrities (Heath Ledger, Prince and Phillip Seymour Hoffman, to name a few) as well as the boy next door.
In recent years Purdue Pharmaceuticals has faced lawsuits at both the state and local levels. From Alabama, to New York, to Washington state and Virginia, governments have filed for damages ranging from “reimbursement for excessive prescription costs” to “deceptive marketing of prescription painkillers to generate billions of dollars in sales.” The allegations have had great impact on the company, resulting in over $1 billion of lost sales from 2012 to 2017.
With the increase of legislation and addiction advocacy in response to the opioid epidemic, Purdue has had a hard time defending their practices and regaining sales. As ethical and moral obligations have become the focus of more health care providers, government officials and community residents, many are taking a stand against the pharmaceutical industry, and against Purdue in particular. In early February, the company released a statement saying that all marketing efforts relating to Oxycontin would cease that month, and that their sales team would be cut in half.
As America struggles to find a solution to the crisis that has claimed the lives of so many, there have been mixed reactions to Purdue’s announcement. Some believe it’s too little too late, while some say better late than never. Others believe that even tighter restrictions on the prescription of opioid medications may push even more addicts towards alternatives like heroin, or increase the number of deadly counterfeit pills available on the black market. One thing everyone seems to agree on, however, is that action must be taken to save the lives of those struggling with addiction and to protect future generations of potential users.