“64,070 people were killed by drug overdoses”
Ask anyone about violence or death in the USA, and instinctively most people will begin to discuss gun crime. However, there is an even bigger problem sweeping the country which is receiving far less public attention – drugs overdosing. A massive 91 Americans are estimated to die every day from an opioid overdose. In 2016, 64,070 people were killed by drug overdoses, up by 23% from 52,898 in 2015. Compare this to the 36,252 who died from shootings in 2015, and we can start to gain some perspective on just how widespread and pressing this problem is. What is perhaps most surprising is that prescription drug overdoses hugely outnumber those involving illegal substances.
The escalation of the use of prescription opioid drugs can be charted. Up until the 1990s the use of opioids as a pain treatment was not common practise, reserved only for the most severe forms of pain; their addictive nature has been general knowledge for years. This approach has remained the case in the UK. However, in the 90s attitudes to opioid drugs in the States started to change when pharmaceutical company Purdue Pharma began to market powerful opioid drug OxyContin as non-addictive and suitable for treating most pain symptoms. This sparked a trend amongst large pharmaceutical companies that quickly spiralled out of control. The sale of opioid painkillers peaked in 2012 with doctors writing more than 282 million prescriptions – enough for nearly every American.
So if the problem has been growing since the 1990s, why has so little been done to solve it? The clear answer is undoubtedly one of money. The opioid industry is worth billions of dollars and pharmaceutical companies are not surprisingly unwilling to reduce sales. In 2010, Purdue Pharma made $3.1 billion dollars from OxyContin sales alone. This was part of $11 billion generated that year from opioid sales alone, across pharmaceutical companies. Working within a privatised healthcare system leaves these companies little incentive to stop selling the drugs. Instead, they have continued to aggressively promote their products in a bid to convince the consumer they are both safe and necessary.
While prescription drugs are causing massive problems in themselves, there also needs to be an acknowledgment of their role as ‘gateway’ drugs. For opioid addicts, heroin provides a far cheaper and therefore attractive alternative. On top of the obvious problems of addiction, getting into heroin brings the user into an incredibly dangerous world of criminality and often prostitution. Moreover, the highly addictive nature of heroin frequently results in users giving up their whole lives to the drug, at the cost of everything else. There are countless stories of Americans who have been prescribed prescription drugs following some minor ailment, and have ended up on the streets as heroin addicts. Conversely, recovered heroin addicts are highly likely to relapse if prescribed an opioid painkiller.
Although their motivations are clear, the reluctance of pharmaceutical companies to do anything at all to try and combat the problem is both remarkable and concerning. It certainly paints a stark picture of such a free market wherein large companies are given almost completely free reign, while at the same time feeling no level of responsibility towards the consumer. This is particularly worrying when it comes to healthcare, which essentially boils down to a matter of life and death. As overdoses are showing no signs of abating in the States, it really calls into question how big businesses are run and what level of freedom they should be permitted.
Image: [Elevate Nevada]