By some accounts, 2.6 millions Americans are addicted to painkiller medications–opioids–and nearly 30,000 people have died from them as we have written about on Just Care. Last Week Tonight’s John Oliver calls out Pharma for its role in our opioid crisis.
Oliver explains that most people start with OxyContin or another prescription medication and then, over time, move to heroin if they cannot get a prescription. People become so addicted that they hurt themselves so that their doctors will prescribe them an opioid. (Note: Mixing opioids with tranquilizers, alcohol and other drugs can cause serious health risks. Mixing opioids with benzodiazepines is the most frequent cause of accidental death from drug overdoses.)
Now doctors in the U.S. write nearly 250 million prescriptions for opioids every year. Back, in the early 90’s, doctors were afraid to prescribe opioids very often for fear they were addictive. But, the head of the department of Health and Human Services at the time, Louis Sullivan, claimed that opioid addiction was a myth. And, soon after, pharmaceutical companies began marketing opioids with a vengeance.
To expand their market share, pharmaceutical companies argued that opioids were not simply for acute pain, such as arthritis or back pain. Purdue marketed OxyContin heavily beginning in 1996. By 2000, doctors wrote 6 million prescriptions for OxyContin while evidence grew that opioids were riskier than authorities had claimed.
The government fined Purdue $639 million in 2009 for misleading marketing. But, the fine seems to have been marginal relative to the profits, and sales are bigger than ever. The CDC now recommends use of nonopioid therapies such as physical therapy and meditation, when possible. Other drugs such as acetaminophen, ibuprofen or naproxen to treat pain have substantially fewer risks.
If doctors feel the need to prescribe opioids, CDC recommends they do so in low doses and small quantities. The CDC found a 14 percent increase in deaths from opioids between 2013 and 2014. Overdose deaths from opioids have tripled in the past 20 years.
While the CDC and others work to drive down opioid prescriptions, Oliver lets us know that pharmaceutical companies have found a new market related to opioids. They are promoting a prescription drug to fight a side effect of opioids–constipation.
Here’s more from Just Care: