The Severity of Opioid Abuse
Opioid abuse claimed the lives of 33,091 men and women in 2015.1 Recent headlines have changed from a question of what to do about this epidemic to calls for action in the form of opioid lawsuits brought by state governments against pharmaceutical companies. Understanding opioid abuse, heroin addiction, and the culpability of pharmaceutical companies is an important step in the battle against the opioid epidemic.
Drug overdoses are the leading cause of accidental death in the United States.2 According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the rate of overdose deaths involving opioids increased 200% between 2000 and 2014.2 Prescription opioid drugs such as OxyContin, and Vicodin have similar effects on the body as Heroin.3 Some researchers believe that opioid abuse may lead to heroin use.3
What Are Opioids?
Opioids are powerful pain-reducing medications with both benefits and risks. The term opioid is used to describe man-made drugs that bind with opioid receptors causing a decrease in pain and a change in mood.4 Opioid is a classification of drugs and should not be interchanged with the term narcotics, which is a legal term that includes opioids and a few other drugs that have been grouped together by law enforcement.4
Opioids are legally available only when prescribed by a physician. When used as prescribed, these drugs can be helpful, though they still carry mild to moderate side effects and risks.3 Opioids may have negative effects on the overall health of the body. But when misused or abused, these drugs can cause addiction, overdose, and even death.3 Below is a list of common opioid drugs:
- Fentanyl (Actiq, Duragesic)
- Hydrocodone (Vicodin, Norco)
- Methadone (Methadose, Dolophine)
- Morphine (MS Contin, Ora-Morph)
- Oxycodone (Percocet, Roxicet)
Opioids were originally introduced into the medical field for cancer-related pain. For much of the twentieth century, most of the healthcare community believed that opioids were not appropriate for long-term pain conditions due to the risk of addiction.4 However, in the 1990s the use of opioids to treat chronic pain began to increase, causing a year to year rise in the number of opioid users.4 This yearly rise in the numbers continues today.4
One study reported that the number of first-time opioid users increased in 1990 from 628,000 to 2.4 million in 2004.4 This study also reported that emergency room visits related to opioid abuse increased 45% between 2000 and 2002, and treatment admission for primary abuse of prescribed opioids increased by 186% between 1997 and 2002.4
Several reasons are suggested for this extreme increase in the use and abuse of opioids during this time; however, two primary reasons are recognized. First, the drugs were more readily available in the community due to the increased use. Second, many physicians used liberal prescription practices with limited oversight by any regulatory agencies.4
Using opioids to treat chronic pain is sometimes the beginning of opioid abuse. Chronic pain is defined as non-cancerous pain that occurs for at least three months.4 This can be pain that occurs secondary to an injury or due to degenerative changes as the body ages. It is difficult to know how many people in the US suffer from chronic pain, but one study estimates it to be between 10%-20% of the US population or 30 to 60 million Americans.4 There is no question that opioid medications do help decrease chronic non-cancer pain. The debate now is selecting the correct patients, maximizing benefits, and minimizing risks in people who may need pain relief. 4
Opioid Abuse and Opioid Addiction
Opioid abuse may occur after a legitimate prescription from a physician or as a result of recreational use. Regardless, all drugs have both wanted and unwanted effects. Below is a list of common side effects of opioid use:
- Pinpoint pupils
- Elevated mood
- Uncontrollable movements of arms and legs
- Impaired judgment
- Slurred speech
- Impaired attention
Once the drug use increases in frequency and dose, the user may begin to experience signs of opioid abuse. These signs affect not only the body but the user’s quality of life also. The impact to the health of the user may life-threatening. Below is a list of common side effects of opioid abuse:
- The user takes the drug in larger amounts or for longer periods of time.
- The user has a persistent desire to decrease or control the opioid use.
- Much of the user’s time is spent obtaining the drug, using the drug, or recovering from the effects of the drug.
- The user experiences a craving or a strong desire to use the drug.
- The user may fail to fulfill obligations at work, school, or home.
- The opioid abuse continues even when the user experiences negative social or interpersonal problems related to the drug use.
- The user may give up activities he or she once enjoyed because of the opioid use.
- Use may occur even in physically hazardous situations, such as driving.
- The user may use despite knowing the negative impact on other physical and mental health issues.5
Opioids are addictive and create tolerance and dependency. These terms can cause confusion. Tolerance is a decrease in the wanted and unwanted effects of a drug over time.4 To combat tolerance, users will increase the dose and frequency of drug use. Dependency occurs when the user experiences unwanted uncomfortable effects when the drug is stopped.4 Tolerance and dependence are time-limited effects that can be treated by a medical professional.4 Addiction is a chronic medical condition with unknown origins that causes the user to continue to use regardless of the consequences on their personal and professional life.4
As the opioid use continues and the user begins to feel the effects of tolerance and dependence, he might mix other drugs with opioids. Research suggests the misuse of opioids may open the door to heroin use.3 Heroin, an opioid, is illegal in the US and has highly addictive qualities. One study reports that nearly 80% of American using heroin reported misusing prescription opioids prior to the heroin use.3
Culpability of Pharmaceutical Companies
The increase of opioid and heroin addiction has become a public health issue for our cities, counties, states, and ultimately our country. State and federal agencies have joined the fight against opioid abuse by filing opioid lawsuits against the makers and distributors of these drugs and changing prescribing laws to decrease the availability.
Pennsylvania saw a 23% increase in the number of deaths from opioid overdose between 2014 and 2015.6 In September of 2016, the state filed an anti-trust lawsuit against the makers of Suboxone. Known for its ability to decrease the cravings for opioid and heroin, Suboxone is approved and used in treatment facilities across the country. This lawsuit alleges that the pharmaceutical company made an unnecessary change to the drug in an effort to raise the price and keep other companies from creating and selling generic versions of the drug. The state contends that this change not only unnecessarily increased the cost of the drug but also decreased the availability of the drug to many people who simply could not afford the higher price.
In May of 2017, Ohio followed Pennsylvania in the fight against pharmaceutical companies.7 The Ohio Attorney General filed a lawsuit against five large pharmaceutical companies. This lawsuit charges that pharmaceutical companies misrepresented the risk of prescription opioids to consumers. The companies sued were Purdue Pharma LP, Johnson & Johnson’s Janssen Pharmaceuticals Inc. unit, a unit of Endo International Plc, Teva Pharmaceutical Industries Ltd.’s Cephalon unit, and Allergan Plc. Ohio has one of the nation’s highest overdose rates: 4,169 people died from overdoses in 2016.7
Along with the lawsuit, Ohio has made changes to their prescribing rules with the hope of decreasing the amount of opioid medications in the community.8 The new prescribing rules provide guidelines for acute pain versus chronic pain. It provides guidance to physicians in terms of length of time a patient should be on these medications. Ohio also uses a prescribing monitoring system to track all controlled substances prescribed to a person.8 This system also tracks the reason or condition that was being treated at the time the drug was prescribed.8 This lets the physician monitor prior prescriptions for controlled substances.8
How to Find Help:
Addiction is a serious, chronic condition that must be treated long-term by a medical professional. If you or someone you love is struggling with opioid addiction, you can call the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration National Helpline at 1-800-662-HELP (4357). This helpline is free and available 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, 365 days a year to provide a treatment referral and information for individuals and families facing addictions to opioids or other drugs.
Pledging his solidarity to the victims and families of heroin overdose, Philadelphia entrepreneur and media personality, Tony Luke Jr. has announced an initiative aimed at heightening the awareness of this epidemic. Tony recently lost his son to a heroin overdose. He emphasizes that the #BrownAndWhite initiative is a platform to launch conversations and end the stigma of addiction.
Tony is encouraging anyone who has lost a loved one to heroin to create and wear a brown and white item (the two colors of heroin) and share it through social media, in schools, local businesses, etc., using #BrownAndWhite.
Tony Luke, Jr. is always available for interviews and public speaking engagements to further create awareness with his focus being on the families who have suffered through this ordeal.
Media Contact for Tony Luke, Jr.: email@example.com
Contact the Marrone Law Firm, LLC for Legal Assistance Today
Veteran litigator and television guest commentator Joseph M. Marrone, Esquire is a leader in the intersecting world of law of wrongful death, medical malpractice, and products liability. He can be reached at 215-732-6700 or 866-732-6700.
Media Contact for Marrone Law Firm, LLC:
Brigette Lutz, firstname.lastname@example.org
Legal References Cited:
- Department of Health and Human Services. (2017). The opioid epidemic in the U.S.
- Committee on Oversight and Government Reform. (2016). America’s heroin and opioid abuse epidemic.
- National Institute of Drug Abuse. (2017). Prescription opioids and heroin.
- Rosenblum A, Marsch L, Russell KP. (2008). Opioids and the treatment of chronic pain: Controversies, current status, and future directions.
- American Psychiatric Association. (2013). Substance-Related and Addictive Disorders. Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, Fifth Edition.
- Esack, Steve. (2016). Pennsylvania joins national lawsuit against drug companies over opioids.
- Kenning, Chris. (2017). Ohio sues five drug companies over opioid crisis.
- Ohio Department of Mental Health and Addiction Services. (2017). Opioid prescribing guidelines.