Thousands of patients in Canada and the US die from prescription painkillers every year. More people die from opioid overdoses than they do from heroin and cocaine use combined. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, enough prescription painkillers were prescribed in 2010 to medicate every American adult around-the-clock for one month.
Health care professionals acknowledge that the problem of painkiller-related deaths has reached epidemic proportions – and a McGill University research team wants to know why. They’ve compiled an unprecedented review of clinical research in order to understand what’s driving this destructive trend.
Mainstream media often depicts painkiller overdose as a problem of doctor or patient error, and the recent proliferation of unregulated internet pharmacies that sell opioids with few protocols. However, after examining a large body of quantitative scientific studies on the subject, the McGill team discovered that these factors contributed very little to the painkiller death toll.
Over-abundance and easy-access
Although Health Canada and the FDA enforce strict pharmaceutical quality control measures with regard to drug development, they have no jurisdiction over just how many prescription treatments flood the market place each year. Since Oxycontin’s debut in 1995, Big Pharma has been churning out an ever-expanding portfolio of painkillers – and it’s no surprise that rates of addiction and death have likewise exploded. The McGill researchers cite an unprecedented access to opioids, both on the street and through doctors, as central to the overdose epidemic.
Deadly painkiller cocktail
The published report also identified another critical driver of painkiller mortality – and that’s the use of opioids in combination with other legal and illegal substances. Social and demographic factors have a part to play here, but the bottom line is that more and more people are mixing prescription painkillers with other, legal and illegal substances. In fact, about one half of all overdoses involve one other substance – chiefly alcohol, heroin, and various tranquilizers.
Big Pharma targeted in lawsuit
Last month, two California counties (Orange and Santa Clarita) sued several Big Pharma companies for their deceptive marketing of painkillers. Officials claim that the drugmakers misrepresented the opioids; manipulating doctors into thinking their benefits outweighed any patient risk. Allegedly, they used persuasive tactics rather than scientific evidence to support their product claims.
The problem of accountability
Over the last several years, both Orange and Santa Clarita counties have been slammed with painkiller overdose deaths and skyrocketing medical costs associated with opioid abuse. And now they’re holding Big Pharma accountable for the role it plays in masking the dangerous potential of these drugs and encouraging over-use. Drugmakers maintain that they comply with pharmaceutical quality assurance standards – that their products pass a wide range of safety tests. But they say the public cannot expect these measures to account for miss-use, for which Big Pharma should not be held accountable.
What do you believe is at the root of the painkiller problem?