The American opioid epidemic started in 1996 with the introduction of OxyContin by Purdue Pharma. OxyContin is a sustained release oxycodone preparation, introduced to the market in 1995, OxyContin is a close cousin of other opium derivatives such as heroin, morphine, fentanyl, methadone, and codeine. (Mariani, 2015; Van Zee, 2009) Purdue employed unscrupulous tactics such as compiling databases of the highest and least discriminate opioid prescribers and targeting reps to frequent those health care professionals (Van Zee, 2009). According to Van Zee (2009), “A lucrative bonus system encouraged sales representatives to increase sales of OxyContin in their territories, resulting in a large number of visits to physicians with high rates of opioid prescriptions, as well as a multifaceted information campaign aimed at them”. In a single year alone, Purdue paid out over $40 million in sales bonuses to its pharmaceutical reps (General Accounting Office, 2003). Purdue likewise recruited medical practitioners to attend all-expenses-paid symposia at luxury resorts, a practice which has been demonstrated to influence physician prescribing habits, furthermore Purdue initiated a redeemable starter coupon program to supply patients with a free limited-time prescription (General Accounting Office, 2003; Orlowski & Wateska, 1992).
Drug abuse escalated with the increasing commercial success and accessibility of OxyContin, as “drug abusers learned how to simply crush the controlled-release tablet and swallow, inhale, or inject the high-potency opioid (http://www.greenmedinfo.com/disease/opiate-addictionwithdrawal) for an intense morphine-like high” (Van Zee, 2009). As described by one user in Paul Tough’s 2001 New York Times piece, “The Alchemy of OxyContin,” “’When you get that oxy buzz, it’s a great feeling. You’re happy. Your body don’t hurt. Nothing can bring you down. It’s a high to where you don’t have to think about nothing. All your troubles go away. You just feel like everything is lifted off your shoulders.’’
The statistics of this epidemic are astonishing.
U.S. OPIOID ABUSE STATISTICS
1. Opioid overdoses killed more than 33,000 people in 2015, more than any year on record. Nearly half of all opioid overdose deaths involve a prescription opioid. (CDC)
2. Deaths from prescription opioids have quadrupled since 1999. (CDC) 91 people die every day from an opioid overdose. (CDC)
3. 80% of recent heroin users started with prescription opioids. (NIDA)
4. Over 2 million people in America have a prescription opioid use disorder, contributing to increased heroin use and the spread of HIV and hepatitis (CDC)
5. The US makes up less than 5% of the world’s population, yet uses 81% of the opioid supply. CDC)
6. There are 250 million prescriptions for opioids written each year – enough for every adult in America to have a bottle of pills. (Surgeon General)
7. Since 1999, the amount of prescription opioids sold in the U.S. nearly quadrupled, yet there has not been an overall change in the amount of pain that Americans report. (CDC)
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