The Policy Proposition: the gritty reality behind America’s opioid crisis

By Alexander Chang (’23) | November 19, 2021

Art by Ava Hennen (’22)

Last October, Purdue Pharma, the manufacturer of the highly addictive opioid OxyContin, faced a public lawsuit and settled for eight billion dollars. OxyContin played a key role in the ongoing opioid crisis and will face complete dissolution within upcoming months.

While the sun may be setting on Purdue, the crisis is still quite alive. Since the introduction of opioids to the American public, more than 800,000 people are estimated to have died from opioid-related overdoses, and that number is only increasing. Countless families, lives, and careers have already been torn apart by the crisis, all while pharmaceutical companies have profited immensely from the despair their products have caused. 

In the 1980s, the industry began aggressively advertising opioids as “safe” and “non-addictive” treatments for both minor and severe injuries. In fact, opioids were even marketed to medical professionals as addictive in “less than one percent” of cases—a number now discovered to be closer to ten percent. In the decades following, prescriptions and addictions simultaneously skyrocketed nationwide as misinformed doctors believed that opioids were nothing but harmless relief for their patients. As a result, the United States entered an ever-growing crisis.

It was clear that oversight was undeniably ineffective at stemming the flood of opioids being prescribed to Americans on a daily basis. For instance, in 2006, nearly 215 million opioid prescriptions were issued in the United States—a prescription rate of 72.4 prescriptions per 100 Americans. This “blizzard of prescriptions,” as Purdue’s Richard Sackler puts it, can be easily explained by the fact that opiate distribution is completely self-regulated by the distributors. 

Take Kermit, West Virginia, for instance. The tiny 400-person town had opioid distributors such as McKesson and Cardinal Health, delivering nearly three million doses of opiates, or an average of about 7,500 pills for each resident. Countless distributors, manufacturers, and medical professionals have all contributed to this crisis by misinforming the public, deflecting blame, and maneuvering out of regulation. 

The damage has already been done. Millions are already addicted to opiates and almost a million more have already lost their lives. There are preventative measures to be taken, however, to prevent the crisis from spreading further. 

It is key for healthcare professionals to relay vital information and warnings on opioids to their patients. Bills such as H.2069, pushed forward by Massachusetts Representative Peter Capano, could be a major step in this process of reeducating the public on the addictive nature of opioids by forcing manufacturers to clearly present warnings about their products’ likelihood of creating dependence. 

Public health measures that reduce the mortality of already opioid-dependent individuals are also crucial to include. Rehabilitation programs, for instance, could drastically reduce the likelihood of death from overdoses in the long run. For instance, Massachusetts representative Ruth Balser and Massachusetts Senator John Keenan recently introduced H.2067 and S.1296, legislation that would provide incarcerated individuals with opioid addiction treatment to hopefully reduce their dependence on the drug. In addition, representative William Pignatelli pushed forward H.2125 which would require first responders to carry naloxone, a drug that could reverse the effects of opiate overdose. 

Regardless, the opioid crisis remains a serious public health concern for the United States, and additional policy must be implemented to finally address the harms that have been devastating this nation for decades. 

Categories: Column, Opinions

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