As America's opioid crisis burned out of control in the last decade, the nation's largest drug companies fueled the fire, increasing their already-massive output of painkillers by more than half. At one point, they were shipping out enough of their profitable, addictive and often deadly product to supply 36 pills to every man, woman and child in America — all the while insisting there was nothing suspicious about the ferocious increases in demand they were seeing.
Those previously hidden numbers, now revealed because of a freedom-of-information lawsuit, drive home the reality of Big Pharma's central role in a scourge that has killed tens of thousands of Americans. To this day, the drug makers blame anyone and everyone else — doctors, pharmacies, drug enforcement officials, the victims themselves — for an epidemic of addiction and death that began in their own laboratories and was driven for years by their own predatory sales practices.
Today, facing thousands of lawsuits, these companies continue to act like bystanders to this tragedy, instead of its primary perpetrators. That's reason enough to cheer the release of detailed data like this, which the industry tried to keep under wraps. The more public light that is put on the history of this epidemic as the courts assess the damages, the better.
Opioids are powerful painkillers that include prescription medicines for pain control sold under brand names like OxyContin and Percocet. Starting in the 1990s, those legally sold painkillers took off, with massive over-prescriptions at the urging of drug makers who downplayed their high addiction risks. As usage skyrocketed, many patients resorted to using heroin to feed their addictions.
In subsequent years, plaintiffs in lawsuits against the manufacturers allege, those pill-makers ignored clear evidence that they were supplying an illicit market, selling far more of the product than could rationally be meant for legitimate pain control alone.
The Washington Post and the publishers of the Charleston (W.V.) Gazette-Mail filed suit to open court records that were previously sealed, outlining in specific numbers the scope of the issue. They won, and what the records revealed is even more shocking that what was already known.
Among the new revelations is that the volumes of pills pushed out by the manufacturers jumped by 51%, from 8.4 billion in 2006 to an astounding 12.6 billion in 2012. This was a period when alarms about the epidemic had long been sounded, yet drug makers continued upping their production to keep the market flooded. More pills led to higher addiction rates, which helped ensure greater demand.
The highest concentrations of pills were sold in rural areas that also had the highest numbers of opioid overdose deaths — a clear indication of the culpability of these companies. Pain management is a legitimate goal, but the national pain inflicted through the irresponsible marketing of these drugs requires accountability.
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