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Pharma’s role in our opioid crisis

Written by Diane Archer

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:



  • NSAIDs (Naproxen, ibuprofen) cause kidney damage. Acetaminophen causes liver damage. Both are especially damaging to the elderly if taken in large amounts (enough to help pain). Constipation from opioids can be a problem but it is solvable. Most, it not all, benzodiazepines are prescription meds and should never be prescribed for any patient that needs opioid and I blame the medical profession if they are not staying on top of this. In addition, as a senior myself, I know many seniors who are being prescribed things like Ambien that never should be given to seniors. I take hydrocodone for chronic pain and have to jump through hoops to get my prescription. I just wish the media and the medical profession would quit blaming opioids when they are not the problem. Ninety percent of prescription meds have more and worse side effects than opioids and doctors keep giving them “because the patient needs them for some problem”.

  • “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.” If they’re in constant pain and cannot get a prescription whose fault is that? Not the doctors, not the patients, but the bozos who suddenly decided that opioids were evil a couple of years ago after they had been used for chronic pain for years.
    How is that big pharma’s fault? Big Pharma may be concentrating on developing the big dollar meds like a cure for cancer, or AIDs, or maybe heart disease and that is where the government is helping out with grants. There isn’t an incentive in making a new med for chronic pain and ‘hint, hint’, there is already one out there that isn’t any more addictive and not trademarked; it’s called marijuana. FYI, I’m on Medicare and thanks to the “opioid scare”, my prescription supplement no longer covers my hydrocodone so I am having to pay the full cost.

  • With all due respect to the article writer, he needs to get off this nonsense that we have an ‘epidemic’ when so many people are using opiods for pleasurable purposes.
    How about getting off the bunkus that using ANY drug for pleasurable purposes is wrong and create DOSAGES going weight by weight and sex by sex for pleasurable usage! That would cut down on the vast majority of drug addictions since the biggest source of those is the widely varying dosages/purity of drugs on the black market today, the main reason I am for pleasurable drug legalization wholesale.
    It is not a moral failing to feel crappy from time to time and to use a drug of whatever form to feel less crappy.
    Perhaps if we gave low-income people ENTERTAINMENT OPTIONS that are low-cost (cough…. for me it is online casual Big Fish games) they would not feel the need to use pleasurable drugs or not use them as often.

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