The New Front in the Legal Battle Against Opioids

opioid medications

For over two decades, the United States has been plagued by an addiction crisis primarily blamed on the excessive use of prescription opioid pain relievers. Prior to the 1990s, opioid pain medications were mostly used for acute pain and cancer pain. This changed in December 1995 when the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) approved OxyContin (oxycodone controlled-release). At the time, the drug’s manufacturer Purdue Pharma assured the medical community that OxyContin was not habit forming and the Connecticut-based company used aggressive marketing tactics to popularize its opioid medication.

“From 1996 to 2001, Purdue conducted more than 40 national pain-management and speaker-training conferences at resorts in Florida, Arizona, and California. More than 5,000 physicians, pharmacists, and nurses attended these all-expenses-paid symposia, where they were recruited and trained for Purdue's national speaker bureau.” Art Van Zee, M.D., reported in a 2009 study.

The consequences of the ensuing, widespread use of opioid painkillers for a variety of pain conditions was devastating. From 1999 to 2015, more than 183,000 people died in the United States from overdoses related to prescription opioids, according to data provided by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). Many addicts who started on pain pills moved on to heroin and other illicit drugs.  

For many years, Purdue and other pharmaceutical companies have mostly escaped blame for the addiction crisis. This could be changing now. Multiple lawsuits have now been launched against opioid manufacturers and distributors.

In May, Ohio announced it is suing five major drug manufacturers for their role in the opioid epidemic. In the lawsuit, state Attorney General Mike DeWine alleges the companies "helped unleash a healthcare crisis that has had far-reaching financial, social, and deadly consequences in the State of Ohio." The companies named in the litigation are: Purdue Pharma, Endo Health Solutions, Teva Pharmaceutical Industries and subsidiary Cephalon, Johnson & Johnson and its subsidiary Janssen Pharmaceuticals, and Allergan.

Ohio claims the opioid manufacturers knew—or should have known—that their products were unsafe or ineffective, but advertised their products as safe and effective anyway. Mississippi has filed a similar lawsuit.

Dr. Andrew Kolodny is co-founder and director of Physicians for Responsible Opioid Prescribing. He has been sounding the alarm over the misuse of opioids for many years. On Democracy Now, Dr Kolodny explained how the medical community was duped into using the purportedly harmless opioids.

“We were responding to a brilliant marketing campaign that was launched initially by Purdue Pharma, the manufacturer of OxyContin, but ultimately other opioid makers would participate in this campaign. And it was a campaign that misinformed the medical community. Doctors, beginning in the ’90s, started to hear that we had been under-prescribing opioids, that we were allowing patients to suffer needlessly because of an overblown risk of addiction. We started hearing that when opioids are prescribed for legitimate pain, the risk of a patient getting addicted is extremely low. The statistic that was used was much less than one percent of patients will get addicted. And we started to hear that the compassionate way to treat just about any complaint of pain was with an opioid.”

Dr. David Kessler, who ran the FDA when OxyContin was approved, is no longer sure, it was a good idea to approve the medication. "This has been one of the great mistakes of modern medicine," Kessler told CBS News in 2016. The "FDA has responsibility, the pharmaceutical companies have responsibility, physicians have responsibility. We didn't see these drugs for what they truly are," Dr. Kessler said.

That mistake is now killing tens of thousands of Americans each year. Every day, over 1,000 people are treated in emergency departments for misusing prescription opioids, yet it took the CDC until March 2016 to issue new prescription guidelines for opioid pain relievers. Arizona and several other states have declared public health emergencies over the opioid addiction crisis.