The Opioid Epidemic: A Three-Part Series

At Casey Law Offices, S.C., our personal injury lawyers focus exclusively on prosecuting injury claims to ensure negligent individuals and businesses are held responsible for irresponsible behavior that has resulted in injury. We do this so those who are harmed are fairly compensated. We represent individuals who have suffered a variety of injuries, including those related to the national opioid crisis. In our Three-Part Series “The Opioid Epidemic,” we look at how and why the abuse of prescription opioid drugs has become a national crisis that has weakened our social fabric, devastating families and taxing the economy. The series also explores pharmaceutical companies’ role in the growing epidemic and how government and individuals are holding these companies responsible.

Part I. The Opioid Epidemic - How Painkillers Became Serial Killers

It happens all-too-frequently: Police officers find children alone in an apartment or home after a parent has passed out or died from a prescription drug overdose. Just recently in Green Bay, officers responded to a West Side home where they found several children under age 7, including 1-year-old twins, unsupervised. The police visited the home because the children’s parents had been found passed out in a car near the edge of town from an apparent drug overdose.

Coincidentally, US Attorney General Jeff Sessions visited Green Bay around the same time to address the national crisis of opioid addiction at an annual conference hosted by National Alliance for Drug Endangered Children. “Drugs are destroying and bankrupting families across this country,” Sessions said. Addiction to opioids, heroin, prescription pain relievers such as OxyContin and synthetic drugs such as fentanyl have become commonplace. Tragically, so have drug overdoses. Every day, more than 40 Americans die from overdoses of opioid painkillers, according to the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).

According to the CDC, opioids were involved in about two-thirds of the 52,000 deaths from drug overdoses in 2015, the latest year for which data is available. It is expected that, nationwide, 59,000-65,000 likely died from drug overdoses in 2016, although the count is still being tabulated. In 2016, Wisconsin County lost 259 people from accidental drug overdoses. According to the Wisconsin County Medical Examiner’s Office, 88 percent of these deaths involved an opiate. The devastation to families isn’t the only toll opioids are taking. The CDC estimates that the total economic burden of prescription opioid misuse alone in the United States runs close to $80 billion a year; this includes costs associated with treatment, healthcare, lost productivity and criminal justice involvement.

It’s highly likely you know someone who misuses or intentionally abuses prescription pain medicine, someone who suffered an overdose, or someone who died from an overdose. There is no “typical” drug addict anymore. That person doesn’t just live as a homeless man on the streets; she is our neighbor, our colleague, our sister; he is our son, our spouse, perhaps our boss. Not only do they live near us in cities, they are also in the suburbs and rural areas. In fact, working-class, white people living in rural areas make up one of the largest subsets of deaths related to drug overdoses.

How did it get so bad? An aspirin a day keeps the doctor away, goes the old saying. Not so with less benign painkillers such as prescription opioids. In the late 1990s, physicians and pharmacies began widely prescribing prescription opioids to help individuals will all sorts of chronic pain problems – serious and not so serious. After several years and widespread misuse, it became apparent that these drugs were, in fact, addictive. Unfortunately, many large pharmaceutical companies contributed to the widespread misuse by failing to warn doctors of the extremely addictive nature of the drugs and by exaggerating their benefits. Several lawsuits have been filed against these pharmaceutical companies.

When taken as directed by a medical professional, opioid painkillers are a safe, therapeutic pain management option for many patients. However, opioids are easily abused when too many pills are taken at once, when they are crushed and snorted or injected and when they are mixed with other drugs and alcohol. The misuse leads to a euphoric effect, and can and often does lead to a drug overdose. Common prescription opioids include: Oxycodone (OxyContin, Percocet), Hydrocodone (Vicodin), Morphine and Codeine. Unlike its prescription opiate cousins, heroin has been around a very long time. In fact, as early as 1898, the Bayer pharmaceutical company began a marketing campaign to sell a formulation of diacetylmorphine, or the product of boiling morphine for several hours. The drug, named Heroin, was promoted as being non-addicting, and appropriate for diseases and illnesses such as bronchitis and tuberculosis.

In 1906, the American Medical Association approved Heroin for general use, and recommended that it be used in place of morphine. It wasn’t long before 200,000 heroin addicts lived in New York City. To deal with the problem, Congress passed the Harrison Narcotics Act was passed in 1914, making it illegal to own, use or be addicted to illicitly obtained narcotics. However, heroin never went away. In the 1990s, the increased purity of heroin allowed for the snorting or smoking, enticing people who would not inject heroin alternatives to start, despite the risk of addiction or overdose. More and more, heroin has become a drug of choice for Americans. Heroin and prescription opiates like oxycodone produce similar euphoric highs. By 2003, nearly 14 million people had abused painkiller OxyContin for its heroin-like effects. Those who abuse OxyContin will turn to heroin when OxyContin isn’t available. Both drugs are equally addictive, and both cause death from overdose.

Alarming facts about the opioid crisis include:

  • Roughly 21 to 29 percent of patients who use prescribed opioids for chronic pain abuse them.
  • An estimated 4-6 percent who misuse opioids transition to heroin.
  • About 80 percent of people who use heroin first misused prescription opioids. I

It is no wonder President Trump has called the crisis “a national emergency.” Children, like the ones in in Green Bay whom the police found unattended because their parents had passed out in a car from an apparent drug overdose, wind up growing up in chaotic environments when drugs are being abused. They often live without electricity, food or heat when their parents can’t pay the bills. Sometimes they stop going to school and learn how to steal to survive. Far too often, they turn to drugs themselves to ease the pain, for a source of income, or both. And so, the opioid epidemic propagates itself.

For parents who have watched a child suffer through prescription drug abuse, or die a tragic death from an overdose, nothing is more painful. They are left to grieve and ponder the “what ifs”. All too often they feel shame and believe they are partially to blame. While in Green Bay, Attorney General Sessions outlined a plan to combat the drug addiction crisis. The plan focuses on addiction prevention, enforcement of drug laws and substance abuse treatment. Stopping the over-prescription of opioid-based medications is a key part of Sessions’ strategy, which includes use of a new database that can identify problematic physicians and pharmacists. It is a good start, but pharmaceutical companies must also be held accountable for their role in this epidemic.

If you have believe you are a victim in the opioid crisis, we encourage you to contact our personal injury attorneys at 414.272.5564 for a free consultation.

Next in the Series: Holding Drug-makers and Distributors Accountable

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