Publication date: Jul 21, 2019
The release of a massive trove of data from lawsuits over the nation’s opioid crisis provides the most detailed accounting to date of the role played by the major pharmaceutical companies and distributors.
But the data gives a stunning portrait of how the nation’s deadly public health crisis unfolded year by year, with manufacturers, distributors and pharmacies turning a firehose of prescription painkillers disproportionately on rural, working-class communities at the same time the death toll from prescription and illegal opioids was climbing.
Following are questions and answers about what the federal data includes and what it could mean for the lawsuits, in which some 2,000 local, state and tribal governments are seeking to hold the drug industry responsible for the crisis.
Federal data on deaths related to opioid overdoses shows the places that received the most prescription opioids per capita were also the places with the highest overdose death rates.
It also shows that the total number of prescription opioids sent to pharmacies increased even as the number of opioid-related deaths was rising, from less than 18,000 a year to more than 23,000.
In recent years, opioids have accounted for roughly two-thirds of all overdose deaths each year in the U. S.
In 2017, the last year for which official numbers are available, some 47,600 deaths were attributed to opioids.
Since 2012, illicit opioids such as heroin and fentanyl, a synthetic drug that is often mixed with heroin, have driven the death totals.
Preliminary data from the U. S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention released this week shows the number of opioid deaths in 2018 is likely to show a slight decline, the first year in nearly three decades in which the overall overdose total dropped.
The leading opioid producers over that span were three companies that make generic drugs: SpecGX, Par Pharmaceutical and Activis Pharma.
The next biggest drugmaker was OxyContin maker Purdue Pharma, which is often cast as the villain of the opioid crisis but produced just 3% of the opioid pills over the span.
Plaintiffs argue that Purdue and later other brand-name drugmakers were the ones who persuaded doctors to prescribe opioids – a class of drugs known for centuries to both relieve pain and be highly addictive – in higher doses and for more conditions.
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