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The History of the Opioid Crisis In America

Every day, more than 90 Americans die after overdosing on opioids, meaning that at least over 31,000 people die annually. And that’s just the minimum.

The lack of action taken on a federal level and the use of deceptive and exploitative marketing by pharmaceutical companies have exacerbated a crisis that could have been controlled. The opioid crisis has become so severe that President Donald Trump has declared it “the worst drug crisis in American history.” So how did this opioid epidemic start out?

It all started back in the late 1990s when opioid prescribing policies radically changed after the “5th vital sign” campaign. The 5th vital sign campaign was based on the premise that millions of Americans suffer chronic pain each year, and the under-treatment of this pain can lead to a huge impairment of a person’s life. Opioids were the supposed “solution” to this problem, and this was backed by many pharmaceutical companies, who put out a lot of deceptive marketing of opioids because they had a lot to gain financially.

On top of this, doctors were overprescribing opioids so patients would think they were safe to use. And the obvious problem with this is the fact that opioids are highly addictive. As a matter of fact, according to the CDC, fentanyl (a synthetic opioid), is “50x more potent than heroin and 100x more potent than morphine.”  When people continue to abuse more and more of this drug because of their addiction, they develop a higher tolerance, meaning they will have to take more of that substance to get high. As users of opioids developed a higher drug tolerance, the amount they took increased, which soon led to a very high chance of overdosing, potentially resulting in death. In the end, the 5th vital sign campaign turned out to be very successful, with at least 20 states drastically liberalizing the long term use of opioids on non-cancer chronic pain. This paired with the misleading marketing for opioids led to opioid usage skyrocketing across the nation.


Now, it is not doctors, but corporations that exacerbate the opioid crisis. Take Purdue Pharma for example: they manufacture and market most of the opioids in America. In 2007, Purdue Pharma agreed to pay over 600 million dollars, to settle charges related to misbranding OxyContin. This is a small amount, considering that their revenue off opioids in 2010 was 3.1 billion dollars. And that was just off selling opioids. Purdue Pharma and other pharmaceutical companies are making a huge profit off the opioid epidemic, while simultaneously doing nothing to stop it.

Now there is no direct solution to fixing the opioid crisis, but there are steps that can be taken to minimize its effects. For example, individuals can take steps in helping end the stigma of drug addiction, which may encourage more people to go in for treatment and be more open about their addiction. Many people fear to go into treatment for addiction due to the fact that they think their friends or family won’t look at them the same way. So they hide their addiction– and doing so is deadly. The opioid crisis will end if we end the stigma, but it will absolutely help people suffering from opioid addiction.

The role of Congress is also vital during this crisis. If we want to make any type of significant change in combating this epidemic, Congress needs to pass much stricter, federal regulations on opioids that hold exploitative pharmaceutical corporations accountable for their manipulative actions that endanger millions of Americans.

The opioid crisis needs to be a priority, not a side job.


Photo: Brandon Giesbrecht via Flickr

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