Opioids “became a form of currency” in the impoverished Appalachia region, a health official told a congressional committee Wednesday.
Three panelists involved in local groups fighting against the opioid epidemic told a House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform subcommittee that most heroin addicts were initially legitimately prescribed painkillers after pharmaceutical companies aggressively marketed their product.
“Within our community … 75 to 80 percent of the individuals that are currently addicted to heroin began … through the use of opioids prescribed by their physicians,” Illinois’ DuPage County Health Department Executive Director Karen Ayala told the Subcommittee on Healthcare, Benefits and Administrative Rules.
Similarly, a recent study found that 80 percent of recent heroin users began their addiction with prescription opioids.
The project director for West Virginia’s Jackson County Anti-Drug Coalition, Amy Haskins, and Ohio’s Scioto County Drug Action Team Alliance, Lisa Roberts, both agreed with Ayala.
“We were making headlines back in 2002 in terms of OxyContin,” Roberts told the committee, noting that was early in the opioid epidemic. “These products were marketed heavily in Appalachia. That’s why they ended up being called ‘hillbilly heroin.’ Pharmaceutical marketing played a role in that.”
“It became a form of currency,” she continued. “Currency in an impoverished area where people didn’t have access to other forms of making money. I think these things were interrelated.”
Purdue Pharma – the pharmaceutical manufacturer that created OxyContin – is widely blamed for initiating the epidemic through an aggressive marketing and propaganda campaign that led doctors to reverse their fears of opioids’ addictiveness.
The company and three top officials pleaded guilty in 2007 to deceiving doctors about the painkillers’ addictiveness and paid nearly $635 million in fines.
Purdue and other pharmaceutical manufacturers and distributors are facing hundreds of lawsuits from state and local governments for their role in the opioid epidemic.
Purdue is uniquely privately owned. OxyContin sales helped the company’s sole owners — the Sackler family — build a $13 billion net worth and put them among America’s richest families. They have never publicly donated money to addiction rehabilitation facilities, The Daily Caller News Foundation previously reported.
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