Spotlight: U.S. cities, states sue major pharma firms amid nat'l drug addiction epidemic

Source: Xinhua| 2017-08-10 17:41:26|Editor: Xiang Bo
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 by Matthew Rusling

WASHINGTON, Aug. 9 (Xinhua) -- Dozens of U.S. cities, counties and states are suing major U.S. pharmaceutical companies amid the worst drug addiction epidemic in U.S. history, accusing the companies of spurring a major health crisis.

Many of the lawsuits allege that the U.S. pharmaceutical industry went on an aggressive marketing campaign and downplayed the highly addictive nature of opioids, a powerful class of prescription drugs that has the same chemical properties as heroin, and in fact comes from the same plant. The plaintiffs in the cases claim this spurred a national health and addiction crisis.

Indeed, since the year 2000, the United States saw over 300,000 deaths due to opioids, which have also caused a heroin addiction epidemic. As individuals were prescribed opioids for pain management, they became addicted to such drugs. Once their pain went away, doctors stopped prescribing them opioids. Many patients thus turned to heroin, a much cheaper alternative, to feed their addiction.

Over the past year, around 25 cities, counties and states have filed separate lawsuits against major pharmaceutical companies. The U.S. states of Ohio, Missouri, Oklahoma and Tennessee in recent weeks joined this nationwide fray of suing pharmaceutical makers. A number of municipalities and counties in California, Illinois, West Virginia and New York also have pending lawsuits.

On Tuesday, the U.S. state of New Hampshire was the latest to file a lawsuit against a major U.S. pharmaceutical company, making the case the latest in a slew of similar local or state government cases. The plaintiffs accuse opioid makers of engaging in marketing with a deceptive intention, alleging that the companies downplayed addiction risks.

That lawsuit comes on the heels of another one filed in Multnomah County, in the state of Oregon, in recent weeks. In a suit worth 250 million U.S. dollars, the county claims drug companies and distributors have engaged in a campaign of "lies and deceptions" in a bid to increase the profit margin by selling more and more opioids. The opioid industry is worth 13 billion dollars a year.

In a speech from the U.S. state of New Jersey on Wednesday, U.S. President Donald Trump addressed the opioid addiction crisis, calling it "a problem the likes of which we have never seen," underscoring its seriousness.

Dr. Andrew Kolodny, a medical doctor and co-director of opioid policy research at Brandeis University, who is a leading expert on the issue, told Xinhua: "The United States is in the midst of a severe epidemic of opioid addiction and overdose deaths."

"It's the worst drug addiction epidemic in United States history," Kolodny said.

2015 saw the highest number of drug overdose deaths in the nation's history, according to a report published in December from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, a department of the U.S. government.

"When I say that we have an opioid addiction epidemic, what I mean is that the number of Americans suffering from opioid addiction has skyrocketed -- there has been a 900 percent increase in the number of people in the United States suffering from opioid addiction," he said.

"The reason we have this epidemic of opioid addiction is because starting in the 1990s, doctors became more aggressive in their use of opioid pain medicine for many different conditions where they would not have used opioids previously," Kolodny said.

"Common, chronic pain problems, (doctors) started to prescribe opioids for these conditions," he said.

"As the prescribing of opioids took off, rates of addiction and overdose deaths increased, right along with the increase in prescribing. So we're in the midst of a severe opioid epidemic that's been caused by the medical community over prescribing opioid pain medicine," he said.

"The reason (doctors) started prescribing so aggressively starting in the 1990s is that we were responding to a brilliant marketing campaign," he said, addressing a campaign from one of the leading pharmaceutical companies named in many state, city and county lawsuits.

"The campaign re-framed good reasons for being cautious with opioids," he said. "They reframed them as barriers to compassionate pain care, and doctors began hearing that we have been allowing patients to suffer needlessly because of an overblown risk of addiction, and that we can be much more compassionate in our treatment of pain and prescribe opioids more liberally."

"We didn't hear it just directly from the drug companies, or we would have been more skeptical. We were hearing this from pain specialists eminent in the field of pain medicine, who were consultants for opioid makers," he said. "We would hear it from our professional societies, who were getting funding from opioid makers. We started to hear it from our hospitals, our state medical boards, from every different direction," he said.

There have been many cases of people becoming addicted to opioids after physicians prescribed them such drugs for non-serious ailments such as back problems and minor sports injuries. Many experts, in examining the crisis, now say opioids should be prescribed with great caution, used only for major, debilitating pain, such as that caused by cancer or a terminal illness.

Opioid addiction is very difficult to rehabilitate. Addicts who quit the drug develop severe withdrawal symptoms that have been described by some as "the flu times ten," including constant vomiting, severe diarrhea, severe weakness, burning of the skin and other ailments.

Indeed, the crisis has hit America's rural areas, which are far away from major cities, where major media are based, and often the epidemic does not receive the media attention that many experts - and many victims - say it deserves.