Beginning in the late 1990s there was a rapid increase in the use of prescription opioid drugs. By 2011 prescription opioids had become the most prescribed class of medications in the United States. Chemically related to heroin, and with similar effects, prescription opioids are highly addictive. As a result, between 1999 and 2017, almost 218,000 Americans died from overdoses related to these drugs. Purdue Pharma, a U.S. drug company, is seen by many observers as having been largely responsible for the rise of this situation.
After introducing OxyContin, a powerful opioid painkiller, in 1996, Purdue proceeded to market it aggressively as a drug that was supposedly less addictive, less subject to abuse, and less likely to cause narcotic side effects. A decade later, the company’s executives admitted in court proceedings they had marketed and promoted the drug with the intent to defraud or mislead. In 2007 in one of the largest pharmaceutical settlements in U.S. history, Purdue was fined $600 million. Compared to the $35 billion or so that OxyContin had reportedly helped net for the company, however, the fine was essentially small change.
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