Drugmakers share blame for opioid epidemic

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The point of origin in this monstrous pandemic of opioid addiction always has seemed clear: Doctors overprescribed highly addictive painkillers that manufacturers overproduced and overmarketed. People dealing with real pain became dependent on the euphoria that granted them relief. Prescription limitations, insurance limitations and the most basic element of all, price, pushed those addicts from the pharmacy on one corner to the dealer on the other.

You know what happened then. Governments moved to shut down illegal pill mills and pipelines, and users turned to highly addictive opiates such as heroin to replace the painkillers.

You also likely know the impact: More than 42,000 deaths nationally in 2016. More than 100 last year in Guilford County, with seven times that many reversed from overdose.

What you may not know is that, according to data collected through 2017 by the Centers for Disease Control, North Carolina is one of the 13 states with the greatest number of opioid prescriptions per 100 people, in the 96-143 bracket. California and New York, by comparison, are about half that rate.

Embedded in these addictions has been the cost of lives, livelihoods and the paths to prevention and treatment that have become an expense for all of us. Through our insurance premiums and the percentage of our taxes that are spent by governments in combating and treating the hopelessness, we are paying.

One county in Ohio says it has spent about 25 percent of its $4 million annual budget to care for the children of drug abusers and to lock up drug offenders, The Washington Post reported. The newspaper said the White House Council of Economic Advisors estimates that the economic cost of the crisis was $504 billion just in 2015. Altarum, a nonprofit that studies health care, estimates the national tab at more than $1 trillion from 2001 to 2017.

Those costs are one reason the Greensboro City Council voted last week to join a national lawsuit of jurisdictions that are suing manufacturers and distributors to recoup those expenses. Many counties in North Carolina already had signed up because opioid-related issues are filling up jails, costing them more for benefits and requiring first responders to work more hours.

Mike Fox, a Greensboro attorney representing plaintiffs in the lawsuit, told the News & Record’s Margaret Moffett that the city would argue that the manufacturers and distributors violated laws and were negligent because they knew they would cause harm and had been fraudulent in claiming that the drugs were not that addictive.

The defendants in this lawsuit total more than a dozen and include big names such as the manufacturer Purdue Pharma, the distributor Cardinal Health and the pharmacy benefit managers Express Scripts.

Certainly drug companies in the smallest of print warn those using the medication to follow the dosage precisely because addiction could result. But that doesn’t explain why prescriptions can be authorized for dozens of pills and an extraordinary number of refills. Shouldn’t the controls be more stringent?

U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions announced in February that the Justice Department is joining this lawsuit: “We will use whatever laws and tools we have to hold people accountable if they break our laws.”

We hope this will prove to be a prescription for deterrence.