The Opioid Epidemic – Holding the Drug and Distribution Companies Responsible
Press Release from QAC Commissioner James Moran
Since becoming a commissioner in 2013, I have been actively involved with the Queen Anne’s County Drug Free Coalition and other county agencies to address the opioid epidemic that is sweeping our country, our state and our county. I doubt that there are many of us that have not been affected by this epidemic or know someone close to us that has. As you will see from the signs that I have helped the Drug Free Coalition and the Queen Anne’s County Sheriff Department erect, we had over 50 overdoses resulting in five (5) fatalities from opioids in Queen Anne’s County in 2017 alone. And this doesn’t include our residents that have OD’d in other counties so our numbers could be much higher.
We hear a lot of talk about gateway drugs that lead to addiction. The unfortunate thing about the opioid epidemic is that the gateway was not strictly illegal drug use but the addition of pain management as a “vital sign.” For those of us that can remember a physician visit a few decades ago, there were four vital signs that were always measured; 1) your temperature, 2) your pulse, 3) your breathing and 4) your blood pressure. Around 1996 though, a fifth measurement was added; pain. Pain management then became as important as our breathing and our heartbeat, and, to the determent of all of us, extremely marketable and profitable.
The drug companies and the drug distributors recognized this potential and flooded physicians with opioid marketing ploys that promised the following:
- Millions suffer from chronic pain, and it’s undertreated;
- Opioids are convenient and effective;
- Addiction to opioids is very rare;
- Don’t give into “opiophobia”;
- Tapering is easy;
- Effective for chronic pain.
Their marketing was tragically successful. In 1996, when Purdue Pharma introduced OxyContin, until 2016, accidental overdoses from opioids increased from 300,000 per year to over 1.7 million resulting in 64,000 deaths in 2016 alone. Additionally, since 2000 over half a million Americans have died from opioid overdoses.
So how did this happen, how could an opioid prescription to manage a patient’s pain lead to an addiction to opioids and ultimately an addiction to heroin? The simple answer; over prescribing. Studies by the CDC show that the probability of continued use of opioids is highly dependent on the number of days of pills in the first opioid prescription. A five day supply results in about a 5% chance of continued use for one year. A 25 day supply increases that chance of continued use to 35% and a 40 day supply a 45% chance. And once your physician stops prescribing and you are now addicted, heroin is the cheap, street opioid that feeds that addiction.
There needs to be accountability and liability for this epidemic and it needs to fall on the manufacturers, distributors and sellers of opioid painkillers that have caused it. Drug makers promoted change in prescribing drugs just for short periods of time to prescribing drugs for long-term chronic pain. And drug companies and distributors spend millions of dollars on promotional activities and materials that falsely deny or trivialize the risks of opioids while overstating the benefits of using them for chronic pain and providing funding to prominent doctors, medical societies and patient advocacy groups to win their support for the drugs’ use for chronic pain management.
Holding these firms accountable and liable can only be achieved through the court system. Much like the fight against Big Tobacco, counties and municipalities across the nation are joining together to take the drug makers and distributors to court to win damages incurred by their negligence. Damages that your tax dollars have paid for; indigent care, drug relief programs, law enforcement and detention costs, emergency medical costs, training, etc., could all be collected through this litigation. In addition, abatement costs for treatment and costs not yet incurred could also be secured.
I am committed to taking this fight to court and will be working with my fellow commissioners to identify a legal team that would best suit our needs; namely one with national prominence, experience in this type of litigation, and that works on a contingency basis so that they won’t get paid unless we win.
James J. Moran,
Queen Anne’s County Commissioner, At Large