ARE CLEVERLY branded fishing hats, stuffed animals, and fancy dinners to blame for the raging opioid and heroin epidemic in the U.S.?

Most of us know the breathtaking scope of that epidemic. People are dying of overdoses at a higher rate than ever in our history—nearly 80 deaths every single day. Four of every five heroin users trace their addiction back to prescription painkillers or opioids.

Less well known is the unethical corporate sales and lobbying blitz that helped trigger the epidemic. During the two decades when addiction rates climbed to unprecedented numbers, multiple pharmaceutical companies spent billions of dollars pushing physicians and patients into a downward spiral of painkiller overprescription and abuse.

Corporate painkiller promotions included dinners and junkets for physicians and direct outreach to patients. One company even funded a “pain guide” that cheerfully promoted the life-changing benefits of opioids while citing multiple “disadvantages” of over-the-counter medications such as ibuprofen. At the same time, the industry was using insider ties to rewrite the medical guidelines that justified the rash of prescriptions.

The efforts paid off. In 2010 alone, physicians wrote 254 million prescriptions for opioids, and pharmaceutical corporations raked in $11 billion in opioid sales.

Multiple companies are culpable, but the most high-profile effort was Purdue Pharma’s promotion of OxyContin. Purdue’s marketing centered on the claim, embossed on its complementary fishing hats and plush toys, that each dose of the drug provided 12 hours of relief. The lengthy duration was the factor that distinguished OxyContin from other, cheaper alternatives.

Unfortunately, for many patients, the drug’s effects did not actually last that long, according to multiple clinical trials, patient experiences, and physician reports. When OxyContin’s effects wore off before the next scheduled dose, it created desperate patients—and what one neuropharmacologist calls “the perfect recipe for addiction.” In one New York county, for example, between 1996 and 2011 opioid pill use increased 1,136 percent and heroin use rose 425 percent.

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Cover January 2017
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