EDITORIAL: Hold drug makers responsible for opioid epidemic

York Dispatch Editorial Board
FILE - This Feb. 19, 2013, file photo, shows a portion of the label for OxyContin pills in Montpelier, Vt. On Thursday, Aug. 31, 2017, safety advocates and state health officials filed a petition calling on the U.S. Food and Drug Administration to ban high-dose opioid painkillers to prevent accidental overdose deaths among patients and people who abuse drugs. The petition singles out the OxyContin 80 milligram tablet, which is taken twice daily, adding up to 240 morphine-equivalent milligrams. It seeks a ban on other high-dose opioid tablets and under-the-tongue films. (AP Photo/Toby Talbot, File)

Doctors in Pennsylvania have prescribed an astonishing amount of opioids.

At the 2012 peak, Pennsylvania saw 83.3 opioids prescribed per 100 people, according to the National Institute on Drug Abuse. That's compared to a national average of 57.7 prescriptions.

In 2017, Pennsylvania pharmacies filled more than 2.4 million prescriptions for almost 260 million doses of oxycodone, the generic name for OxyContin, according to a report from the Drug Enforcement Agency. That year, the total prescriptions for oxycodone and hydrocodone would have given each person living in the state about 32 doses of the opioids.

More:Maker of OxyContin gets hit with Pa. lawsuit

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More:Bloomberg announces $50M to fight opioids; Pa. first to get funds

There's a reason doctors have prescribed the powerful pain killers so much: Manufacturers such as Purdue Pharma, the makers of OxyContin, keep asking them to. Even after overdose deaths began climbing in 2006, even after Purdue settled with Pennsylvania and 25 other states in 2007 to stop promoting the drug for any reason other than relief for severe pain, even after the doctors they were calling on were worrying pharmacists with their levels of prescriptions.

State Attorney General Josh Shapiro filed a lawsuit against Purdue on May 2 under seal and announced it on Tuesday, May 14, seeking to hold the company responsible for the toll opioids have taken on Pennsylvania.

It's about time.

At least 45 other states have already sued the company over its practice of sending representatives to doctors' offices to push the product.

The lawsuit says Purdue drug representatives have made 531,000 calls on doctors in the state since the 2007 settlement. Only California doctors heard from the company more, the state says.

Pennsylvania Attorney General Josh Shapiro speaks during a news conference in Philadelphia, Tuesday, May 14, 2019. Shapiro filed a lawsuit Tuesday accusing the company that makes OxyContin of fueling the opioid epidemic, making it at least the 39th state to make such a claim against Purdue Pharma. (AP Photo/Matt Rourke)

Shapiro said he decided to sue the company after two years of serving as a leader of a multistate investigation into the opioid industry and negotiations with companies on a settlement.

“It has become clear that just one company, Purdue Pharma, has not been willing to negotiate in good faith,” he said at a news conference.

Yes, opioids have relieved unbearable pain for many people, there's no disputing that. But they have also been misused and overprescribed. 

A study in JAMA showed that overdose deaths increased in areas where drug companies directly marketed opioid prescriptions to doctors. That's because those are the areas where the most prescriptions were written. 

OxyContin came onto the market in 1996, and it and other opioid prescriptions touched off a wave of abuse and overdoses among the patients and among their family and friends. A second wave hit in the 2000s as people now addicted to the opioids turned to heroin for relief, and a third wave hit in the last few years as fentanyl came into wide use.

The numbers in Pennsylvania and York County show the growing epidemic of drug overdoses, with 108 reported deaths involving opioids in the state in 2013 growing to 4,267 overdose deaths statewide in 2018, according to the state Department of Health. York County alone saw 180 drug overdose deaths in 2017 and 166 in 2018.

Shapiro and other attorneys general are finally holding Purdue Pharma responsible for the thousands of deaths and millions of lives upended by the opioid epidemic the pharmaceutical company started and refuses to stop feeding. 

This is a marketing campaign that ruins and ends lives. Shapiro is finally acknowledging that, and maybe soon Pennsylvania can start to climb back from this epidemic.