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EDITORIAL | Scaling back regulations can have unintended consequences

It seems that for every generation in the last century, a public health crisis surfaced involving drug abuse. Cocaine, heroin, LSD, marijuana and amphetamines are among the illicit drugs that led to addiction and death by overdose.

Today, the United States is experiencing a new type of dependency involving legal, prescription drugs, particularly opioids.

According to the National Institute on Drug Abuse, opioids are a class of drugs that include powerful pain relievers available legally by prescription. The drugs interact with opioid receptors on nerve cells in the body and brain, and produce euphoria in addition to pain relief. Regular use can cause dependence and can lead to fatal overdose.

The painkiller epidemic is a sad story that continues to devastate families. How the addiction to pain medication came about is also shameful.

A 2015 report from Pacific Standard magazine detailed how the Food and Drug Administration approved the opioid analgesic OxyContin in 1995. "In its first year, OxyContin accounted for $45 million in sales for its manufacturer, Stamford, Conn.-based pharmaceutical company Purdue Pharma," it stated.

Sales mushroomed to $1.1 billion in 2000 and $3.1 billion in 2010.

"By then, the potent opioid accounted for about 30 percent of the painkiller market," Pacific Standard reported. OxyContin's popularity, in a crowded field of pain-relieving drugs, raised eyebrows.

"During its rise in popularity, there was a suspicious undercurrent to the drug's spectrum of approved uses and Purdue Pharma's relationship to the physicians that were suddenly privileging OxyContin over other meds to combat everything from back pain to arthritis to post-operative discomfort," the report said.

In 2007, Purdue Pharma pleaded guilty in federal court to charges that it misled regulators, doctors and patients about the addictive properties of OxyContin and paid $600 million in fines. That same year, the state of Kentucky filed a civil suit against Purdue. The company settled its suit in December 2015 for $24 million without any admission of wrongdoing.

The settlement did not end legal challenges for Purdue. Last January, the city of Everett, Washington, filed a lawsuit, alleging that the pharmaceutical company disregarded illegal trafficking of OxyContin, as reported in a 2016 Los Angeles Times investigation.

Everett city attorneys "accused Purdue of gross negligence ... and said the company should pay costs of handling the opioid crisis — a figure that the mayor said could run to tens of millions of dollars," reported the Los Angeles Times.

The Department of Health and Human Services reported that more people (nearly 30,000) died from drug overdoses in 2014 than in any year on record. The majority of those deaths, more than six out of 10, involved an opioid.

The addiction epidemic has not gone unnoticed in Church circles. Canadian Archbishop J. Michael Miller of Vancouver issued a pastoral letter Feb. 16 on the prescription drug overdose crisis. "Skyrocketing prescription opioid use is identified as a major source of the problem," he wrote. "Clearly the disproportionate use of highly addictive opioids and finding new ways to deal with acute and chronic pain both need more of our attention."

Lack of federal regulations and corporate arrogance has caused a national nightmare with prescription drug addiction and overdose. The cost in terms of worker productivity, rehabilitation, medical care and human suffering is unknown.

The opioid epidemic is a clear example of why stiff regulations in industry, whether environmental, financial, transportation and even pharmaceutical, are important. Today, as the Trump administration looks to streamline industry regulations, let's not forget how shortsighted scaling back regulatory controls can be.

Editor's note:

We occasionally publish editorials from other Catholic news organizations. This editorial originally appeared in the May 16 issue of The Compass, newspaper of the Diocese of Green Bay, Wis. 

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