|Photo: User:51fifty. Used under Creative Commons license.|
New York city is the latest U.S. city to bring a lawsuit
against Purdue Pharmaceutical and other companies involved in manufacturing and
distributing prescription painkillers, known as opioids. Some 250 such lawsuits
have been filed alleging that deceptive industry marketing practices have
caused opioid overdose deaths to skyrocket.
“More New Yorkers have died from opioid overdoses than car
crashes and homicides combined in recent years. Big Pharma helped to fuel this
epidemic by deceptively peddling these dangerous drugs and hooking millions of
Americans in exchange for profit,” Bill de Blasio, mayor of New York city, said
in a statement. “It’s time [to] hold the companies accountable for what they’ve
done to our city, and help save more lives.”
In 2016, 42,249 people died of opioid-caused overdoses in
the U.S., according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention—more
than deaths from breast cancer that same year.
De Blasio is by no means the first senior elected official
to condemn the opioid business. "Purdue Pharma ignored the devastating
consequences of its opioids and profited from its massive deception,” Bob
Ferguson, the Washington state attorney general, said in a statement last
“On average, two people die each day from opioid overdoses in our state. Tens
of thousands of others struggle with addiction.”
Indeed Alaska has declared opioid deaths constitute a state
disaster. "When earthquakes, fires or floods claim lives and property on a
large scale, a declaration of disaster is issued to prioritize the state’s
response. This is no different,” Bill Walker, the state governor said in a
prepared statement last February. “We must stop this opioid epidemic."
Opioids, a class of drugs not unlike opium, have been
marketed by the pharmaceutical industry for over 100 years, ever since Bayer
invented heroin in 1874, but use has increased massively in the last three
In 1996, Purdue Pharmaceutical, owned by the Sackler brothers of New York,
started to market a product called OxyContin. The company released a host of
marketing materials including a video featuring Dr Alan Spanos, a pain
specialist in North Carolina. "They don't wear out; they go on working;
they do not have serious medical side effects,", Spanos said. "So,
these drugs, which I repeat, are our best, strongest pain medications, should
be used much more than they are for patients in pain."
The number of opioid prescriptions shot up from 2 million a
year in the early 1990s to 11 million by the end of the decade. Over
the next 20 years, the quantity of opioids prescribed by U.S. doctors tripled.
By 2015, doctors were prescribing enough opioids to keep every person in the
U.S. on pain medication for 10 hours a week.
“What happened was compassion became conflated with opioid
prescribing, so a doctor who wasn’t willing to prescribe opioids was seen as
withholding and sadistic,” Anna Lembke, a professor of psychiatry and
behavioral sciences and author of "Drug Dealer MD: How Doctors Were Duped,
Patients Got Hooked and Why It’s So Hard to Stop" told the Daily Beast
Some lawsuits says that companies specifically marketed
opioids to vulnerable communities. “I believe these companies target
populations,” Todd Hembree, the attorney
general of the Cherokee Nation in Oklahoma, told the New York Times.“They know
Native Americans have higher rates of addiction.”
The Cherokee tribe noted that as much as 80 percent of
criminal convictions of tribal members were drug-related in a lawsuit filed in
April 2017 against six drug distribution companies - AmerisourceBergen, Cardinal Health, CVS
Health, McKesson, Walgreens and Walmart. (The lawsuit was dismissed earlier
this month but the tribe plans to refile.)
Purdue says it not at fault. “We vigorously deny these
allegations and look forward to the opportunity to present our defense,"
John Puskar, Purdue Pharma spokesperson, said in an official statement.
"We are deeply troubled by the prescription and illicit opioid abuse
crisis, and are dedicated to being part of the solution.”
Many of the lawsuits have been consolidated under one judge
- Dan Polster in Cleveland, Ohio - who has gone on record saying that he isn't
really interested in prosecuting the companies or anyone else.
"In my humble opinion, everyone
shares some of the responsibility, and no one has done enough to abate it. That
includes the manufacturers, the distributors, the pharmacies, the doctors, the
federal government and state government, local governments, hospitals,
third-party payers and individuals," Polster told a gathering of lawyers earlier this month. "What I'm interested in
doing is not just moving money around, because this is an ongoing crisis. What
we've got to do is dramatically reduce the number of the pills that are out
there and make sure that the pills that are out there are being used