The opioid epidemic that killed tens of thousands of Americans wasn’t fueled by a simple storm of prescription pain pills.
It was a coast-to-coast blizzard.
And in just six years, nearly 100,000 people died.
“America’s largest drug companies saturated the country with 76 billion oxycodone and hydrocodone pain pills from 2006 through 2012 as the nation’s deadliest drug epidemic spun out of control,” reports the Washington Post, citing “previously undisclosed company data released as part of the largest civil action in U.S. history.”
Those 76 billion pills amount to more than 200 for every man, woman and child in the country.
The Post analyzed the database and found that “just six companies distributed 75 percent of the pills during this period”: McKesson Corp., Walgreens, Cardinal Health, AmerisourceBergen, CVS and Walmart.
Most of the opioids — 88% — were manufactured by three companies, the Post says: SpecGx, a subsidiary of Mallinckrodt; Actavis Pharma; and Par Pharmaceutical, a subsidiary of Endo Pharmaceuticals.
“Purdue Pharma, which the plaintiffs allege sparked the epidemic in the 1990s with its introduction of OxyContin, its version of oxycodone, was ranked fourth among manufacturers with about 3 percent of the market,” the Post says.
“Those 10 companies along with about a dozen others are now being sued in federal court in Cleveland by nearly 2,000 cities, towns and counties alleging that they conspired to flood the nation with opioids. The companies, in turn, have blamed the epidemic on overprescribing by doctors and pharmacies and on customers who abused the drugs.”
The Post says the drug companies, the Justice Department and the Drug Enforcement Administration “fought furiously against the public release of the database,” the Post says. The companies claimied it “could give competitors an unfair advantage in the marketplace,” while the government agencies argued that the information “could compromise ongoing DEA investigations.”
The companies have paid more than $1 billion in fines to federal agencies and hundreds of millions more to various states.
“But the previous cases addressed only a portion of the problem, never allowing the public to see the size and scope of the behavior underlying the epidemic,” the Post says, noting that when the companies’ settlements stipulated that such information be kept hidden.
“Until now, the litigation has proceeded in unusual secrecy. Many filings and exhibits in the case have been sealed under a judicial protective order,” the Post says, But on Monday the secrecy was finally lifted by a federal judge after a “year-long legal battle” by the Post and HD Media, which publishes the Charleston Gazette-Mail in West Virginia.