Road to Recovery

The Origin of a Crisis: How OxyContin led the way for the opioid epidemic

Road to Recovery

Prescription drug abuse has already claimed hundreds of thousands of lives.

So how did this happen?

The best place to start telling this story may be the year 1996. That’s when a drug called OxyContin was introduced to the market by the pharmaceutical company Purdue Pharma.

OxyContin was marketed as a sort of miracle pill. Purdue sales representatives played up its long-lasting pain relief, compared to Percocet or Vicodin — and downplayed the risk for abuse or addiction, according to a study published in the American Journal of Public Health.

Kaiser Health made public Purdue’s marketing plans for OxyContin from the late 1990s and early 2000s. In those documents, OxyContin was touted as “the one to start with” and “the one to stay with.”

Purdue doubled its sales force and flew doctors to all-expenses-paid conferences to convince them to prescribe the new painkiller.

And it worked.

In 1997, about 670,000 prescriptions were written — by 2002, 6.2 million prescriptions. OxyContin became the most-prescribed brand-name opioid in the country for moderate or severe pain.

This laid the groundwork for what we now call the opioid crisis. Regular people from all walks of life would go to the doctor for pain and leave with a prescription for an opioid like OxyContin or Vicodin. Eventually, the prescription would run out — and some of those people would experience withdrawal symptoms and crave more.

So those people would try to get more — or turn to dangerous alternatives like heroin and fentanyl, and their lives would change forever (if they stayed alive at all).

Since 1999, about 200,000 people have died of an overdose involving prescription opioids. In 2017 alone, about 17,000 people died in that way. That number has started to stabilize in recent years, according to the National Institute on Drug Abuse.

And pharmaceutical companies are starting to be penalized for their alleged role in the crisis. In 2007, Purdue was fined 634 million dollars for misrepresenting how addictive OxyContin could be.

And in September, after reaching a $10 billion settlement with many state and local governments, Purdue Pharma filed for bankruptcy but did not admit to any wrongdoing.

Copyright 2019 Nexstar Broadcasting, Inc. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.

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