The big drug makers such as Purdue Pharma, the manufacturer of OxyContin, are often assigned blame for propagating the nation’s opioid crisis. However, internal documents gathered from a number of pharmaceutical and retail companies indicate that generic drug manufacturers also played a great part in advancing the epidemic. The Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) kept records that a staggering 78 billion hydrocodone and oxycodone pills – most of them generic brands – were delivered to pharmacies across the nation between 2006 and 2012.
The yearly distribution of these drugs increased by more than 50% during this period even as deaths from opioid overdoses continued climbing. Even after Purdue Pharma was fined to the tune of $635 million for false marketing OxyContin, claiming it was not as addictive as other opioids, the various powerful painkillers produced by the drug companies flowed even faster to distributors.
Who should be held accountable?
The myriads of data surrounding the opioid epidemic issue illustrate its complexity and how challenging it may be for the courts to assign accountability for this public health travesty. As of this time, over 2,000 state, local, and tribal governments have filed lawsuits against the pharmaceutical industry in the largest and potentially most complex litigation ever carried out in the nation.
Since the year 2000, according to the CDC, more than 430,000 deaths have occurred in the U.S., in part due to prescription and illegal opioids such as fentanyl and heroin. Between 2006 and 2012, the number of opioid deaths increased from under 18,000 a year to over 23,000. During this period of time, prescription drugs were factors in just below 50% of these deaths.
Since that time, total opioid deaths in the nation have doubled, even though the CDC has just recently reported that drug overdose fatalities of all types most likely fell last year for the first time in close to three decades.
Lawsuits from every state against the drug makers
Almost every state in the nation has filed a lawsuit against the drug manufacturers, and most of these have been directed against Purdue and members of the Sackler family, the owners of the company based in Stamford, CT. Numerous other local governments have filed a lawsuit against other drug manufacturers, pharmacies, and distribution companies.
These lawsuits assert that the time released opioid, OxyContin, and its introduction onto the market in 1995 by Purdue, changed the game, accelerating the use of opioids with a greater number of patients and in larger doses.
Little accountability after Purdue’s fraudulent marketing of OxyContin
Generic drug companies are typically capable of producing cheaper versions of patented drugs a long time after their initial placement onto the market when the benefits and risks of the drugs are better understood. However, when it came to OxyContin, the risks were up to considerable debate. In 2007, Purdue and a number of individuals who at the time were current and past executives pled guilty in federal court. They agreed to pay a total settlement of $635 million on the grounds they had marketed OxyContin fraudulently as a less addictive drug than others, and one that carried minimal side effects.
Opioid manufacturers have faced new penalties under intense scrutiny since that landmark fine imposed against Purdue. In 2017, Mallinckrodt was the first, paying out a settlement of $35 million to satisfy DEA assertions it failed to sufficiently identify suspicious opioid orders.
Purdue and the generics push back
Purdue has countered that it produced only a small percentage of the nation’s opioids – approximately 3% from 2006 to 2012, based on the available data. On the other hand, three generic drug producers – Activis Pharma, SpecGX, and Par Pharmaceutical – that sold cheaper generic drug versions including versions of OxyContin – all put together, manufactured about 90% of the actual pills.
Those three generic drug companies assert they did not market the drugs, but were simply fulfilling the prescription requests of doctors and did not manufacture a greater quantity than the DEA permitted.
What about the distributors?
The distributors in the supply chain contend they operate as a delivery service and keep the required federal authorities informed of the numbers of drugs they ship.
Four distribution companies – Walgreens, McKesson Corp., AmerisourceBergin, and Cardinal Health – each shipped over 10% of the opioids pharmacies received. By itself, McKesson distributed over 18% of the nation’s opioids between 2006 and 2012 – the greatest percentage of any distributor – but asserted that it did not drive sales.
The issues of accountability when it comes to the nation’s opioid epidemic are long and complex. Ultimately, the hope is that justice will prevail as much as possible, with those responsible for flooding our cities and towns with dangerous opioids, paying the price for what they have done.
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