Opioid addiction is attributed to a rising number of overdose deaths over the past decade, which have more than doubled in America between 2010 and 2017.1 And in 2019 – the most recent reporting year – close to 50,000 people died from opioid-related overdoses,2 accounting for 70% of the overdose deaths that year. Tragically, the opioid crisis has only worsened during the pandemic.
But what caused America’s opioid addiction, and who will be held accountable? Here’s a short recap of how America’s opioid crisis evolved.
The U.S. Medical Industry Changed its Approach to Addressing Pain
During the 1950s, opioids were prescribed primarily for short-term pain relief after surgery and for terminal diseases like cancer. It wasn’t until the 1980s, that the medical industry brought the concept of pain management into a broader focus, and physician organizations began to advocate for more ways to combat chronic pain.
In 1980, a letter to the editor of The New England Journal of Medicine suggested that opioids were safer and less addictive than had been thought, but there was no evidence to back up that claim. Further studies claimed that it was only recreational opioid use that led to addiction and that those prescribed the medication for pain were at low risk of becoming dependent.3 Researchers now believe that the medical industry incorrectly interpreted these findings or drew conclusions based on unreliable sample sizes.
Pharmaceutical Companies Aggressively Marketed Opioid Products
In an environment that touted opioids as safe when used with a prescription, pharmaceutical companies saw a marketing opportunity. They rolled out new products – including the sustained-release version of a long-used medication called oxycodone. In the 1990s, pharmaceutical giant, Purdue Pharma, began to promote its OxyContin brand aggressively.
Pharmaceutical companies’ promotional efforts included lobbying, funding patient and physician organizations, sponsoring medical education courses, and sending their company reps to visit doctors. They assured the doctors that the products were safe and held relatively low risk for addiction, even though they knew those claims weren’t valid.
Physicians Trusted Pharmaceutical Companies
Doctors, who generally don’t have much training in pain management,4 took the pharmaceutical companies at their word. Due to their inexperience and trust in the pharma companies, doctors felt comfortable prescribing these medications. What they didn’t know at the time was that opioids don’t treat chronic pain very well and that long-term use would lead to addiction. 3
Learn more about the connection between opioids and pain.
The Healthcare Industry and U.S. Regulatory Agencies Exacerbated the Problem
In the 1990s, health insurance companies were more likely to provide coverage for low-cost prescription pain pills than for more expensive pain management approaches like physical therapy. And the existing health insurance framework incentivized doctors to write more prescriptions. Doctors in private practice could benefit financially by seeing more patients and providing what seemed like an easy fix for discomfort.
The FDA also missed the opportunity to evaluate the problem of opioid misuse when they narrowed their focus to only investigating the safety and effectiveness of the drugs used as prescribed.
Will the Courts Hold Drug Companies Accountable for the Opioid Addiction Crisis?
In May 2021, litigation began against three large prescription opioid companies. Between 2006 and 2014, the three firms distributed more than 57 million doses to a community of only 100,000 people. This landmark trial could set a precedent for accountability, although lawyers for the defendants maintain that their clients had no role in impacting demand for the pills.
Legal accountability aside, it’s clear that a confluence of factors led to America’s opioid addiction. Some of the parties were well-meaning but ignorant, and others deliberately withheld information to grab profit.
Signs of Opioid Addiction
If you’re worried that you or a loved one may be addicted to opioids, watch for these signs:5
- Uncontrollable cravings for the drug
- Sleep habit changes
- Weight Loss
- Flu-like symptoms
- Decreased libido
- Poor hygiene
- Shutting out family and friends
- Financial difficulties and stealing
- Inability to control opioid use
Help- And Hope – is Available for Opioid Addiction
At Ocean Hills Recovery, we can help you take the first step toward healing. Our compassionate and expertly trained staff will guide you on your journey toward a substance-free life. You’ll recover in an environment that will make you feel safe and supported while you discover the tools and practice the behaviors you’ll need to manage your life on your own.
Reach out to us and share your story. We’re ready to design a program that will finally set you free and let you feel hopeful again.
About the author:
Greg opened his home and heart to alcoholics and addicts in 2003. He is a Certified Addictions Treatment Counselor (CATCI). Starting in 2009 Greg has fostered the growth of Ocean Hills Recovery into one of the most respected and effective treatment centers in the area and has been working with people with addictions since March of 2001. Greg believes in a holistic approach to recovery. His focus is on drug alcohol addiction treatment with a combination of 12 Step work, therapy and counseling, and the rejuvenation of the body through healthful eating and exercise. He has designed his program to foster a family-like atmosphere and believes that people in recovery are just beginning their lives. He encourages the people he works with to learn to enjoy life in sobriety. Greg is married to Nicole; they have two adorable sons together and an energetic yellow Labrador Retriever.