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Opioids, including heroin, but also prescription opioids like oxycodone, hydrocodone and the synthetic painkiller fentanyl, killed more than 42,0000 people in 2016 – and according to the CDC, 40% of those overdose deaths involved a prescription opioid.
Opioids do not discriminate; anyone who takes them can become addicted, regardless of their background or income level. Once hooked on opioid painkillers, addicts often turn to heroin, which is both cheaper and easier to get. In fact, 4 out of 5 new heroin users started with prescription opioid painkillers.
Widely criticized for its marketing practices, Purdue Pharma LP, maker of the opioid painkiller OxyContin, announced Saturday that it will stop promoting opioids to doctors and has cut its sales department by half. This comes as the state of Alabama announced last week that it was suing Purdue Pharma, joining a number of states, counties, and cities accusing the company of using misleading marketing that downplayed the dangers of addiction, and overstated the benefits of using opioids to treat long-term, chronic pain, rather than short-term pain.
The result has been rampant overprescribing of addictive painkillers – in 2013 alone, doctors wrote nearly a quarter of a billion prescriptions for opioids, enough for every adult in America to have their own bottle of pills. The most common drugs involved in opioid deaths include prescription oxycodone (like OxyContin), hydrocodone (including Vicodin), and methadone, an opioid commonly used to treat opioid withdrawal symptoms.
Purdue is no stranger to the legal system; in 2007, the pharmaceutical company and three of its executives pleaded guilty to federal charges related to misbranding OxyContin and agreed to pay $634.5 million to resolve a Justice Department Probe. Purdue also reached a nearly $20 million settlement with 26 states and Washington D.C. that same year, and in 2015, agreed to pay $24 million in to resolve a lawsuit by the state of Kentucky.
“We now know that overdoses from prescription opioids are a driving factor in the 16-year increase in opioid overdose deaths,” states the CDC website on the opioid epidemic. Citing DEA data and a CDC report, the website goes on to state that the amount of opioids sold to doctor’s offices, hospitals, and pharmacies “nearly quadrupled between 1999 and 2010,” though pain levels in America had not increased, and that deaths from prescription opioids have more than quadrupled since 1999.
In a recent Reuters article, Purdue said it would inform doctors on Monday, February 12, 2018 that it was stopping the practice of sending sales reps direct to physician offices to discuss its opioid products, and will direct doctors with opioid-related questions to its medical affairs department.
The restructuring announced Saturday is another step toward mitigating the catastrophic levels of opioid abuse and overdose deaths in this country that many argue was fueled by pharmaceutical companies like Purdue Pharma.