06 Apr Kentucky Files Billion-Dollar Lawsuit Against OxyContin Maker
Prescription opioids are wreaking havoc across America. Drugs like OxyContin, Opana, Duragesic and Vicodin are the main driving force behind the prescription drug epidemic, interacting with the brain in the same basic way as heroin and leading to rising addiction and overdose deaths across the country. The pharmaceutical companies, meanwhile, have been raking in the rewards. After a long delay, Kentucky’s billion-dollar court case against Purdue Pharma (manufacturer of OxyContin) is set to go ahead, alongside similar actions this year in Illinois and California. With some predicting that this could trigger widespread legal action against pharmaceutical companies, are they about to pay for their role in the continuing epidemic?
Prescription Painkiller Abuse in the U.S.
The prescription drug epidemic has led to drastic increases in overdose deaths. About 115 people in the U.S. die each day as a result of drug overdose, and the majority of those deaths are due to prescription medications. Seventy-two percent of prescription drug deaths in 2012 were related to opioid painkillers like OxyContin, and enough prescriptions were written that year to give every single American adult a bottle of pills.
Kentucky is one of the states hardest hit by rising painkiller abuse. For every 100 people in the state, there are 128 prescriptions written for opioid painkillers (according to 2012 data), over twice the number of states like New York and New Jersey, which are among the lowest-prescribing in the country. In 2008, approximately 18 in every 100,000 people died of a drug overdose in Kentucky, again over twice the rate of states such as Minnesota, Kansas and New York.
The Lawsuit Against Purdue Pharma
In 2007, Purdue Pharma pleaded guilty to misbranding OxyContin as less addictive than other narcotics and paid over $600 million in fines. Some of this money was set aside for states, but Kentucky was the only state to refuse the offer (of $500,000), deciding to file a lawsuit instead. Purdue delayed the case, getting it moved to a federal court, and six years later it was ruled that the case should return to Kentucky. After such a long time in the making, it looks like the case is finally going ahead.
The crux of the issue is the role of the company in Kentucky’s prescription drug abuse problem. According to the state, the rise in drug-related crime, the increased demand on public treatment facilities due to rising addiction and the spike in overdoses means it’s due $1 billion in damages (an estimated figure, including punitive damages and interest) from Purdue. There are a dozen claims in total, including false advertising, Medicaid fraud and creating a public nuisance.
As an example, prosecutors argue that Purdue was deliberately misleading about the abuse potential of extended release OxyContin. Purdue said the pills were difficult to abuse, but the company’s own research allegedly showed that most of the active ingredient from a tablet could be extracted by crushing it, a practice that addicts quickly picked up on. Purdue denies all of the claims, and in particular argues that it’s gone to a lot of effort to reduce the drug’s abuse potential.
One of the other arguments from the company is that it can’t get a fair trial in Pike County, where the case is set to be held. According to Purdue’s survey of residents, almost 40 percent knew somebody who’d run into legal trouble because of OxyContin, one-third knew somebody seriously hurt by it and 29 percent knew somebody who’d died. Ninety percent agreed that the effect on the community was devastating. However, the request to have the case moved was denied.
Big Pharma Isn’t Blameless, But We Aren’t Either
The situation doesn’t look good for Purdue Pharma, and—especially if more states begin to take similar action—it’s starting to seem reminiscent of the Big Tobacco lawsuits in the 1990s. But no matter how misleading Purdue Pharma’s marketing might be and how deceptive its practices, it doesn’t seem fair to lay the entire blame for the prescription drug epidemic on it or other companies. Purdue may have provided the substances, but we all knew they were opioids. Doctors knew that they were prescribing something that had to possess abuse potential (if you were willing to try hard enough), and those who exceeded the suggested dosages knew what they were doing.
We can go for the jugular of specific companies for their clearly profit-driven and apparently deceptive activities, but we can’t go around pretending that Purdue executives traveled the country force-feeding almost 260 million prescriptions down our throats in 2012.
Have Kentucky and other states seen rising abuse rates in their residents because of deep-seated psychological and socio-economic factors, or is it just due to deceptive marketing? If they’d said all along, “If OxyContin is crushed and snorted, it’s highly abuse-able,” is the suit implying there would have been no problem? When they did make a more abuse-resistant form of the drug, people did stop abusing OxyContin; the problem is they switched to other pills or started taking heroin. This is because OxyContin specifically isn’t the issue; it’s the complex problem of addiction itself we have to tackle.
The issue isn’t as clear cut as we may like it to be. By all means, crack down on deceptive practices, but we can’t pretend that the prescription drug epidemic can be wholly blamed on drug companies, just like a cocaine abuser can’t blame his dealer for his addiction. Really tackling this issue takes public education, improved access to treatment and, crucially, for every one of us to have the wisdom to spot a problem when it’s developing in front of our eyes. We all need to combat addiction together.
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