Drug addiction continues to be one of the major health issues that any country is facing today. Along with the increase in the number of individuals using illicit substances is the surge in the number of deaths caused by opiate overdose. In this article, we will look into the impact of the pharmaceutical industry on the growing opioid abuse epidemic.
The Real Scenario on Drug Abuse
News reports are worsening as each day unfolds, as young individuals start getting hooked early in life. Apart from that, a large majority of the workforce are regular users of illicit drugs, costing companies so much money because of lower productivity, higher absenteeism, and higher heath care expenditure.
The opioid abuse dilemma has been a longstanding problem in the U.S. For the past couple of decades, the rate of opioid abuse has increased significantly. One report said that the amount of opiate prescription filled in 2010 was already enough to provide for each American – healthy or not – for one month. Just imagine how much pharmaceutical companies have earned over that time!
The most common opiate drugs abused are heroin, morphine and prescription pain killers. About 2.1 million Americans succumbed to substance abuse related to prescription pain killers in 2012. Meanwhile, about 467,000 were found to be addicted to heroin. These growing numbers are linked to unintentional overdose and an increased in recreational use.
With these facts on hand, the world needs to put all efforts in facing the negative impact of opioid abuse. There is a need to revisit the role of opioids in terms of healing and reducing the suffering of those who are experiencing chronic pain from varying health conditions. The government, together with the pharmaceutical companies, need to come up with scientific insights on how to strike a balance between providing optimum relief from pain while reducing the associated risks and untoward effects that could lead to addiction.
Prescription Opioid Abuse: Truths, Facts, Figures
Among the three categories of medications that are prone to abuse, prescription opioids have a more severe impact as they are the most commonly abused substances susceptible to long-term and recreational use.
The increase in the rate of drug abuse may be brought about by several factors:
- Increase in the number of prescriptions written and dispensed
- Increased social acceptability for using medications for various purposes
- Aggressive marketing of pharmaceutical companies
These factors have allowed opioids to be accepted and available. Individuals who use it recreationally can even get access to opioids from relatives or friends who have been medically prescribed for chronic pain treatment.
The increase of opioid availability has been accompanied by a drastic increase in the negative consequences related to abuse. The number of emergency cases involving recreational use of opioid analgesics increased. From an estimated 144,600 ER cases related to opioid abuse in 2004, the number ballooned to 305,900 in 2008.
Deaths related to prescription opioids have increased in the early part of the 21st century. It was reported in 2002 that opioid analgesic poisoning was the leading cause of death among all other illicit drug overdose cases.
The effects of prescription drug abuse become more dangerous and addictive by crushing pills and then snorting or injecting the powder, or by combining the opioid with alcohol and other drugs. It poses a higher risk on individuals who take more than what is prescribed.
Meanwhile, another group of individuals who may become opioid dependent are those who are taking prescription opioid for longer periods. An estimated 100 million Americans are suffering from chronic pain, while approximately 38 million suffer from chronic back pain conditions and at least 17 million suffer from osteoarthritis. Scientists are still in the process of observing the appropriateness of long-term opioid use in outweighing the benefits over the risks associated with chronic use.
The National Institute on Health and the Food and Drug Administration decided in 2002 to require companies who manufacture long-acting and extended-release opioid formulations to organize a post-marketing research on the safety of their products.
The Effects of Opioid Abuse
Opioids such as Oxycontin and Vicodin are the most commonly prescribed medication to treat moderate to severe pain. When these drugs attached to the receptors, they help reduce the perception of pain and can result to a sense of well-being.
However, apart from the relief that individuals may experience after taking these medications, opioid use may also exhibit other signs and symptoms such as:
- Mental confusion
- Nausea and constipation
With continuous administration of opioid chemicals in the body, the production of endogenous opioids is obstructed. This results to the discomfort being felt when the drug is discontinued. These are the withdrawal symptoms experienced by an individual who stops opioid abuse immediately.
The use of opioids has two positive effects: the relief from pain, and a sense of well-being and pleasure that triggers the happy house of the brain. Individuals using opioids may somehow at a certain point feel that they need to intensify their experience, thereby taking the drugs in unconventional manner.
Opioids are produced in the form of extended-release tablets, which are supposedly to be slowly absorbed into the bloodstream over a certain period of time. By crushing the tablet and snorted or injected with aqueous solution, this may increase the effect, resulting to a higher risk of medical complications such as:
- Respiratory arrest
Non-medical use of opioids has become popular among the youth. They are able to access opioids and similar medicines from friends or from people selling them on the streets. They are most often distributed in parties and musical events wherein drugs have become part of the event.
In 2012, it was reported that more than 5 percent of opioid users aged 12 years and older were taking opioids for recreational use.
Prescription opioid abuse is very costly. Insurance companies spend billions of dollars in health care costs for treating individuals who are taking opioid pain relievers for nonmedical purposes. The rate of admission for treating prescription pain relievers has also increased tremendously.
Tolerance to opioids is likely to happen when an individual would no longer feel the same effect with the usual dose that he commonly takes. This would lead the individual to take larger doses until he is able to reach the desired effect. This in turn would lead to a possible overdose.
A contributing factor to opioid overdose is when individuals would take them in combination with benzodiazepines and/or other CNS depressants. Therefore, individuals who are under such medications should practice safe administration, and should be closely monitored.
Pharmaceutical Companies Involved in the History of Opioid Abuse
All eyes are on drug companies that develop and sell opioid medication. They are mostly to blame for the opioid epidemic mainly because they have promoted their products in a way that only the positive effects are highlighted, while leaving out the risks of these drugs.
Some of the big-branded pharmaceutical companies that have significantly contributed to the growth of the opioid abuse epidemic include the following:
- Abbot Labs
- Endo Pharmaceuticals
- Johnson & Johnson
- Purdue Pharma
- Watson Pharmaceuticals
Purdue Pharma was able to generate at least $3.1 Billion in 2010 from Oxycontin sales. The pharma giant advertised that Oxycontin is a suitable, non-addictive medication for treating all types of pain most especially cancer-related pain symptoms. The company was found guilty of misleading the public, leading them to pay a penalty of $635 million.
Between 1995 and 2001, the number of oxycodone-related deaths increased to 400 times and the number of Oxycontin prescription has increased 20-fold, according to the Drug Enforcement Agency.
According to the Organic Consumers Association (OCA), the drug industry is the main reason behind the opioid abuse problem. The consumer group claims the following situations:
- Opioid pain killers have become the first choice for treating lower back pain and other pain conditions, which were then treated with other drugs with milder adverse effects.
- The long-acting opioid pain reliever can be snorted or injected with combination of aqueous solution. This has made drug addicts prefer them over other drugs because it can provide them with a different and better kind of “high”.
- Oxycontin became extremely popular because its eerily similar action as the illicit substance heroin.
- Long-term use of opioids has been gravely promoted without much evidence to prove how it would affect the overall health of individuals.
- Pharmaceutical companies have been releasing misleading information about opioid painkillers. They never informed doctors and nurses of the addictive nature of these drugs, most especially Oxycontin.
Health professionals were made to believe that these long-acting drugs can provide pain relief of up to 12 hours. In reality, however, the effect wears off less than the number of hours indicated. Therefore, patients would have to endure painful withdrawal symptoms, which lead them to take more of the drug to relieve them from discomfort.
What Pharma Companies Should Do to Help Address Opioid Abuse
While it’s true that pharmaceutical companies have every right to earn, this mindset of profit should not come at the expense of public health and safety. In fact, with the gravity of power and privilege that pharma companies have with their extensive range of medical products, they need to be more responsible in releasing products so as not to trade remedies for long-term illnesses.
What pharmaceutical companies should do is carefully develop drugs that would provide more benefits rather than risks. It may be inevitable for cancer patients to take pain medication, which is why the development of such drugs should revolve along the long-term use of the drugs. Proper and complete information about the action of the drug/s should be made open to the public.
Such aggressive marketing tactics may drive health professionals to choose a particular brand of medications, in the hope that they could provide the relief that patients suffering from chronic pain need. However, much of the work should start from the pharmaceutical companies, as they are the ones that create and develop these drugs.
Alongside this is the need for extensive physician and patient education with regards to the use of such substances, which should include following the guidelines in taking the medication at the right time and the right dose. Information about the possible adverse effects for long-term use of the drug should also be well-discussed to patients.
Physicians should also come up with other options on how to treat pain wherein there should be a limit on the number of doses that a patient should take. By doing this, patients can avoid possible dependence on the drug.
The battle against opioid abuse is far from over. However, aside from the constant fight of the general public against this kind of drug abuse, pharmaceutical companies should be at the forefront of maintaining public safety and health.