Top Democrat Goes After Drug Makers For Fueling Opioid Addiction

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Steve Birr Vice Reporter
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Senators are increasing their scrutiny of major drug manufacturers in light of the national opioid epidemic, alleging pharmaceutical companies intentionally downplayed the risk posed by painkillers.

Democratic Sen. Claire McCaskill from Missouri sent letters to the five largest pharmaceutical drug makers asking they produce documents that will clarify their role in rising deaths connected to opioids. Painkillers are implicated in 180,000 fatal overdoses since 2000 and killed 33,000 Americans in 2015. McCaskill claims the companies directly fueled America’s dependence on painkillers by deliberately misleading the public on their safety, reports The Washington Post.

McCaskill sent the letters to Purdue Pharma, Janssen Pharmaceuticals, Insys Therapeutics, Mylan and Depomed, asking for everything from marketing materials and scientific studies to details regarding legal settlements.

“This epidemic is the direct result of a calculated sales and marketing strategy major opioid manufacturers have allegedly pursued over the past 20 years to expand their market share and increase dependency on powerful – and often deadly – painkillers,” McCaskill said in the letters, according to The Washington Post. “To achieve this goal, manufacturers have reportedly sought, among other techniques, to downplay the risk of addiction to their products and encourage physicians to prescribe opioids for all cases of pain and in high doses.”

The letters come as the makers of the opioid painkiller OxyContin are facing a lawsuit alleging the company knowingly allowed pills to flow into the black market, feeding addiction. Mayor Ray Stephanson of Everett, Washington is suing Purdue Pharma for gross negligence, claiming the company turned a blind eye to suspicious activities that funneled pills into the streets of Everett, where opioid abuse is now rampant.

Stephanson said “Purdue’s drive for profit” directly fueled opioid addictions in the community and the rising rate of heroin abuse.

Representatives for Purdue Pharma said the lawsuit is a misrepresentation of what sparked the opioid crisis in Everett and “look forward to presenting the facts in court.”

After a number of lawsuits Purdue Pharma reformulated the drug OxyContin in 2010 to reduce the possibility for abuse. In the absence of abusable Oxycontin, former users turned to heroin in large numbers to attain the same high. Researchers from RAND Corp. and the Wharton School concluded abuse-deterrent OxyContin is directly responsible for roughly “80% of the three-fold increase in heroin mortality since 2010.”

The reformulation succeeded in its intended purpose of reducing overall abuse of OxyContin, but it came with disastrous unintended consequences. There are 3.1 more heroin deaths per 100,000 people for every percentage decrease in OxyContin abuse.

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