On Saturday, April 27, Mineola police hope to take unused prescription medication out of medicine cabinets throughout Mineola. The point is to reduce opportunities for theft and abuse of these products, some of which are no doubt opioid-based pain pills.
That’s commendable, and I hope the take back event is a rousing success.
What’s not commendable, however, is the volume of opioid-based medications that poured into our medicine cabinets in the first place, how the lure of eye-popping profits coaxed big drug makers like Purdue Pharma to aggressively market products that would unleash a torrent of addiction and death across the nation.
The epidemic’s roots go back to 1995, the year the government approved OxyContin. Purdue Pharma launched the drug in 1996. Within a few years the carnage had begun. Nearly 400,000 people died from opioid overdoses between 1999 and 2017, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. In 2016, nearly 2.1 million Americans had an opioid addiction and in 2017 alone, more than 70,000 people died from an opioid overdose, including 1,458 Texans, according to the National Institute on Drug Abuse. These figures don’t speak to the drug store break-ins, home burglaries, auto thefts, robberies, smuggling and other crimes associated with the epidemic. Nor do they reflect the full measure of family dysfunction, loss of productivity and crushing sorrow wrought by the scourge.
While lives were devastated and lost by the thousands, drug makers in 2016 spent $15.8 million in fees and reimbursements to doctors related to opioid drug promotion. They spent $23.7 million in 2015 and $19.9 million in 2014, according to ProPublica. The money greased the skids for massive profits. In 2016, gross sales of opioid products in the United States stood at an estimated $72 billion, 17% of all pharmaceutical sales, according to Statista.
As the epidemic raged, Purdue Pharma hit a bump in the road back in 2007. As part of a federal settlement, the company admitted to falsely marketing OxyContin as less addictive than rival products. The company paid $630 million in fines. Despite the legal setback, opioid sales continued merrily along as people just kept on dying, some through legally prescribed opioids and others from pills acquired on the black market containing fentanyl, a powerful opioid 50 to 100 times more potent than morphine.
Today, makers of prescription opioids face a reckoning.
Thirty-six states, including Texas, have sued the makers of opioid medications. Across the nation, cities and counties have filed an estimated 1,500 lawsuits, some of which also name major distributors. In March, Oklahoma reached a settlement with Purdue Pharma that will pay out $270 million. The Oklahoma Attorney General had accused the company of stoking an epidemic that left thousands of Oklahomans dead. “The United States is experiencing the worst man-made epidemic in modern medical history,” the lawsuit claimed.
Some observers draw parallels to the tobacco lawsuits of the 1990s, which were settled in 1998 to the tune of $206 billion over the first 25 years. There’s no telling how many billions ultimately will be awarded in the opioid suits once the dust settles. And there’s no telling how many millions in bonuses and dividends will have been paid to company executives and major shareholders of big pharma. And there’s no telling how many more thousands of lives will be lost by the time this unholy plague runs its course.
Maybe by ridding your medicine cabinet of unused prescription pain medicine on April 27, you can help save at least one.