John Oliver, the host of Last Week Tonight on HBO, frequently addresses issues of national importance and concern on his show. This week, in the midst of one of the most contentious elections in United States history, he and his staff took the time to dig into the deadly opiate addiction epidemic that continues to claim lives throughout our country.
During the segment, Oliver showed a clip of United States Surgeon General Vivek Murthy explaining just how rampant the opioid problem is in America:
“We have currently nearly 250 million prescriptions for opioids written every year. That’s enough for every adult in America to have a bottle of pills, and then some.”
It hasn’t always been this way. As recently as the 1990s, doctors across the country were so worried about the potential negative effects of opioids that they would avoid prescribing pills unless absolutely necessary. Dr. David Thomas of the National Institute of Drug Abuse spoke about this now seemingly foreign concept:
“Back then there was a thing called ‘opiophobia.’ A lot of healthcare professionals did not want to prescribe opiates at all because they thought [that if] you give the slightest amount you turn your patients into addict, and so even people with stage four cancer weren’t being given opiates. They were left to suffer.”
The federal government released a report in March of 1992 that both dispelled some common yet dangerous myths and introduced a brand new one that may have caused more damage than ‘opiophobia’ ever could. Robert Hager of NBC News reported on the government’s findings:
“Today the federal government said in a report that about half of all surgery patients suffer needlessly because doctors in hospitals don’t pay enough attention to painkiller[s]. Health secretary Lewis Solomon talked about myths that pain builds character: myth, he said; that infants don’t feel pain: another myth; that elderly patients have a higher tolerance for pain; or that painkillers are addictive: all myths.”
It’s almost conceivable to think that medical professionals considered that fourth “myth” even for a moment. Opiates are some of the most addictive substances available to consumers, legal or otherwise. From there, the pharmaceutical industry took over with massive marketing campaigns and incentives for doctors who prescribed their pills. Purdue, the producers of OxyContin, played a huge role in this campaign. In one of their ads targeted to consumers, they claimed that less than 1 percent of patients become addicted – the United States Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) estimates that up to one in four people prescribed opioids for an extended period of time for noncancer pain wound up struggling with addiction.
Purdue was later fined $634 million for misleading the public with their marketing campaigns. Attorney John Brownlee announced the guilty verdict and fine, and said that the company knew of the dangers for years:
“Even in the face of warnings from health care professionals, the media, and members of its own sales force that OxyContin was being widely abused and causing harm to our citizens, Purdue, under the leadership of its top executives, continued to push a fraudulent marketing campaign that promoted OxyContin as less addictive, less subject to abuse, and less likely to cause withdrawal. In the process, scores died as a result of OxyContin abuse and an even greater number of people became addicted.”
No fine will ever be able to save the estimated 180,000 people who died of opioid overdoses between 1999 and 2014. While lawmakers have been slowly introducing new regulations in an attempt to combat the problem, experts doubt they will have a noticeable effect on opioid sales in the near future.
With millions of people addicted to prescription painkillers, it’s difficult to see how this problem could be fixed any time soon. That’s why it’s vital to create and maintain rehabilitation centers to help people break free from their addictions, we here are Schick Shadel Hospital are proud to continue playing our part to help people regain control of their lives. If you or someone you love is struggling with addiction,send us a confidential message through our online form, or give us a call at (800) 272-8464 to speak with one of our staff members.