Should Pharmaceutical Companies be Held Accountable for Opioid Deaths?

Pills and profits for pharmaceutical companies.

In the last few years, the massive role pharmaceutical companies played in increasing the U.S. rate of addiction has been revealed in one news article and book after another. Gradually, it’s become possible for parents who lost children, government agencies and representatives and media to see the connection between pharmaceutical company actions and skyrocketing overdose deaths. Is it time to hold these huge corporations responsible for their misdeeds that have ultimately resulted in the deaths of hundreds of thousands of Americans? It appears that yes, it just might be that time.

First, How Did These Misdeeds Get Exposed?

Let’s take a look at how the role these companies played began to be exposed to the public.

In 2014, the publication of the book Dreamland: The True Tale of America's Opiate Epidemic by San Quinoñes described the connection between fraudulent marketing practices by major pharmaceutical companies and runaway heroin addiction and overdoses. The book was thorough and detailed.

Since then, the New York Times, Los Angeles Times and Washington Post have gotten on board by offering their analyses and reporting on various aspects of this epidemic, as have local papers all over the country. Especially in Ohio, Kentucky, West Virginia and other Northeast and Appalachian states with some of the worst problems.

Basically and briefly, the story these media and this book told followed this basic outline:

  • In the 1990s, Purdue Pharma launched an aggressive marketing campaign for their patented time-release painkiller OxyContin. Pharma reps were instructed to tell doctors that this new formulation was not addictive and not subject to abuse.
  • These marketing messages were flanked by many more messages from doctors, foundations and non-profits, government agencies and medical centers. The instruction was that “pain was undertreated” and responsible doctors should treat pain, not just injuries and illnesses.
Hands holding pills.
  • As these messages collided, the sales figures for OxyContin and other opioid painkillers began to climb – then soar.
  • More patients became dependent on these pills, meaning they could not stop taking them without getting sick from withdrawal symptoms.
  • Others were fully addicted, meaning they also learned to depend on them to manage their emotions or mental states.
  • As addiction numbers climbed, efforts began to be made to stop misuse of these pills by restricting their distribution or making the pills nearly impossible to abuse.
  • These efforts began to send those who were dependent or addicted to the illicit drug market where they found heroin.
  • With heroin’s varying potency and especially as the powerful drug fentanyl began to be added to heroin supplies, overdoses began their own climb.
  • Families across the country began to lose loved ones at a rate higher than ever before.

Who Will Hold the Pharmaceutical Companies Responsible?

It’s fine to see the connections and to understand how the problem developed. But eventually these companies should be held accountable, shouldn’t they? More legislators, government officials and public health experts are now saying yes, they should.

We already knew that in 2007, Purdue Pharma paid more than $600 million in fines after admitting its guilt for fraudulently marketing its painkillers. But that amount was only a tiny percentage of the profits they made off OxyContin.

But now, there are more signs that real change is happening.

City of Chicago.
City of Chicago.
  • 2014: the City of Chicago, Santa Clara County and Orange County in California and the state of West Virginia all sued one or more pharmaceutical companies or distributors or their roles in causing widespread addiction that resulted in thousands of deaths.
  • 2015: Suffolk County, New York announced its intention to file suit against pharmaceutical companies to recoup their losses resulting from addiction and overdoses.
  • In 2017: a southern county in Illinois sued Abbott Laboratories and Purdue Pharma of fraudulent marketing practices that resulted in 1,400 deaths in Illinois in 2015.
  • In 2017: the State of West Virginia sued major pharmaceutical distributors for their irresponsible business practices that permitted indiscriminate prescribing by some medical offices.
  • 2017: Everett, Washington filed suit against Purdue Pharma after the Los Angeles Times documented a smuggling ring that brought millions of painkiller pills north from Southern California.
Senator Claire McCaskill
Senator Claire McCaskill.
  • 2017: Senator Claire McCaskill of Missouri launched an investigation into the causation of the opioid addiction epidemic. She requested sales materials, addiction studies and more from five pharmaceutical companies: Purdue, Janssen/Johnson & Johnson, Insys, Mylan, and Depomed.
  • 2017: Ohio’s Attorney General filed a lawsuit against Purdue Pharma, Teva Pharmaceuticals, and Johnson & Johnson and other pharmaceutical companies, claiming they “trivialize(d) the risks of opioids while overstating the benefits of using them for chronic pain.”

In a statement released in August 2017, the Ohio Attorney General explains his reasons for filing the state’s lawsuit. “It is just and right that people who played a significant role in creating this mess should help clean it up.”

The pressure is on to hold pharmaceutical companies and distributors responsible for the tragic effects of their business practices. It will take time for these lawsuits and investigations to be settled, won or lost. Over the next year or two, we may see that pharmaceutical businesses are finally forced to release their profits to help clean up this national tragedy. If the funds resulting from the wins are used to help those who became addicted recover their health and sobriety, the real winners could be the families and individuals who previously lost everything because of these addictive pills.

Couple hugs as they watch the sun set.


Karen Hadley

For more than a decade, Karen has been researching and writing about drug trafficking, drug abuse, addiction and recovery. She has also studied and written about policy issues related to drug treatment.