The Opioid Crisis and Pharmaceutical Lawsuits

By Steve Dechan 

The COVID-19 pandemic has been the greatest crisis faced by the UK in the last 70 years. With the national death toll now over 100,000 and the vaccination process still ongoing, COVID’s impact on society will continue for years to come. 

However, while COVID-19 dominates headlines, there are numerous silent epidemics that continue to impact the lives of British people. These epidemics continue without receiving the necessary attention from the press, government or health service. One such epidemic is that of chronic pain. 

Chronic pain is defined as pain that lasts for at least 12 weeks, and in the UK, affects more than two-fifths of the population. However, despite its widespread nature and ongoing impact, management of chronic pain is still a relatively archaic process. Instead of more modern, technology-based approaches, doctors and industry experts are still reaching for opioid prescriptions.

Opioids are heavy painkillers and their impact on national health services, both structurally and economically, has come to a head in the United States. The US has been described as being in an opioid crisis. Purdue Pharma, the maker of OxyContin painkillers, have recently reached an $8.3bn (£6.3bn) settlement and agreed to plead guilty to criminal charges for its role in fuelling it.

Many involved in the case claim the company and its owners have claimed the lives of more than 400,000 Americans since 1999. These deaths come via the over-prescription of opioids, leading to dependence, overdose and addiction, all of which strain public health and policing resources in cities and towns across the US.

In terms of the case’s settlement, Purdue will pay $225m to the US Department of Justice and a further $1.7bn towards addressing claims made in other lawsuits. The settlement also includes a $3.54bn criminal fine, a $2.8bn civil penalty and an agreement with the owners of Purdue Pharma, to pay $225m and give up ownership of the company. 

Despite these eye-watering sums, the settlement has been widely criticised, both due to its rushed process and shallow outcomes. Many believe that the US Department of Justice rushed the settlement to beat the 2020 Presidential election and not cause wider political disarray. Dissatisfaction with the settlement revolves around the transition of Purdue to a new company that can continue to produce OxyContin and the lack of effort made to recover money from the owners that was transferred between 2008 and 2017.

I pleased to see big pharma held accountable for their role in perpetuating the opioid crisis in the US. But those who have impacted by the crisis may well be asking themselves whether the punishment really did fit the crime. I hope that going forward dependence on opioids in the US and UK alike will reduce. 

https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/business-54636002

https://www.britishpainsociety.org/mediacentre/news/the-silent-epidemic-chronic-pain-in-the-uk/

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