Prescription Opioids and Addiction

Can companies and pharmacies be the ones to blame for a patient’s addiction?

By Aitken Aitken Cohn

October 28, 2021

From the recent death of a celebrated actor to the complex settlement agreement that gave the Sackler family—owners of Purdue Pharma, maker of OxyContin—broad immunity from liability claims, the rise of opioid overdose deaths in communities across the U.S. is staggering.

In many areas of the country, the epidemic had recently seemed to be on the decline. But in 2020, likely related to the Covid-19 pandemic and lockdown, overdoses skyrocketed. According to CDC data, deaths from opioid overdose, including synthetic drugs like fentanyl, increased from 50,963 in 2019 to 69,710 in 2020. These figures include both prescription and non-prescription opioids.

In the 1990s, assured by pharmaceutical companies that prescription opioids were safe, effective, and unlikely to cause dependence, doctors began confidently—and widely—prescribing them for patients. Sadly, a dramatic increase in opioid addiction demonstrated that these drugs could very easily be misused, with dire consequences.

 

What are opioids?

Natural narcotic pain medications, such as morphine and codeine, are made from opium. There are also synthetic opioids such as Vicodin (hydrocodone), Percocet, OxyContin (oxycodone), and fentanyl.

All opioids are potentially addictive and pose a risk of overdose. Other adverse side effects can include sedation, dizziness, nausea and vomiting, respiratory depression, inadequate pain management, constipation, hormonal and immunological dysfunction, muscle stiffness, and more. Unfortunately, many people take opioids without understanding the risks or even really knowing what they’re taking. Once a patient is “hooked” on narcotic pain medication, it’s tough to stop taking the drug and break the addiction cycle. Some addicted people resort to dangerous alternatives, including illegal street drugs such as heroin.

Over the last few decades, pharmacists have been on the front lines of dispensing opioid pain medication, determining whether the drug was improperly used, and serving as the first line of defense by engaging in prevention and treatment efforts of opioid misuse. But recent reports are accusing the same industry of turning a blind eye to the problem, leading to criminal charges and billions of dollars in civil litigation, according to an NPR report.

Earlier this month, some of the nation’s largest pharmacy chains, including Walmart, CVS, and Walgreens, faced a civil trial in Ohio for their role in the opioid crisis. According to a Reuters report, the attorneys representing the two Ohio counties, Lake and Trumbull, alleged that between 2006 and 2014, these companies had recklessly dispensed opioid prescriptions and ignored clear warning signs as people became increasingly addicted. The Washington Post reported that for eight years, pharmacies in those two counties filled enough painkiller prescriptions to “provide about a dozen doses to each man, woman, and child who lived there every 12 months.”

According to the study, “Promising Roles for Pharmacists in Addressing the U.S. Opioid Crisis,” listed in the U.S. National Library of Medicine National Institutes of Health, one of the first ways to address the ongoing crisis is by starting with the pharmacists, as they have the potential to make a massive difference in the industry. Pharmacists can utilize available prescription drug monitoring programs to help prevent the diversion of opioids and are trained to be alert for signs of opioid misuse by patients. They also can recommend addiction treatment to patients and be a resource for information on addiction treatment options in the community.

While it’s true that opioids can be helpful and necessary when indicated by the patient’s condition, and while under the care of a vigilant physician, the sad truth is that they have been over-prescribed, sometimes very irresponsibly. Fortunately, prescriptions for opioids have been declining since 2012, but for millions of American individuals and many communities, the devastating results of opioid misuse and addiction are far from over.

We know that opioid addiction devastates lives, families, and livelihoods. If you or a loved one have suffered harm from prescription opioids, seek the advice of an experienced attorney at Aitken Aitken Cohn today.