Big Pharma's Role in the Heroin Explosion

Big Pharma's Role in the Heroin Explosion

By Paul Gaita 02/26/14

How the over-prescription of Oxycontin and other opioid painkillers helped lead to the resurgence of street heroin.

Purdue Pharma headquarters in Stamford, CT. Photo via

The wave of heroin addiction that has gripped parts of the United States, particularly in the northeast, can be traced directly to the rise of Oxycontin and other opioid painkillers that have been prescribed since the 1990s.

A recent article in the Huffington Post drew a direct correlation between the drug’s dominance in the medical marketplace – spurred by an aggressive promotional campaign by its manufacturer, Purdue Pharma, which underplayed its addictive properties – and the harrowing rise in heroin use a decade later. Oxycontin soon became a $1 billion industry based on this false information, which Purdue would later pay more than $600 million in fines for misleading medical professionals and the public at large about its powerful addictive properties.

As doctors began to reduce availability of the drug and other oxycodone-based opioids – a situation exacerbated by the drastic measures of the Drug War, where federal and local authorities cracked down on so-called pill mills – addictions to Oxycontin and other opioids exploded across America, especially in suburbs and other areas not normally associated with heavy drug use. But as pills became increasingly more difficult to obtain, even through illegal means, addicts turned to street heroin, which offered a cheaper and stronger high. A 2013 study from the Center for Behavioral Health Statistics and Quality, which noted that four in five individuals transitioned to heroin after abusing non-medical pain relief medication (NPRM), drove home the connection between the two drugs in the starkest of terms.

The relationship between opioids and heroin has received renewed attention in recent weeks due to the death of actor Philip Seymour Hoffman, who reportedly underwent treatment for prescription drug abuse in early 2013 before his heroin-related death on February 2, 2014. His death, however, is just one of thousands of equally tragic stories occurring all across the United States. Overdose deaths have increased for more than a decade, with more than 125,000 lives claimed by opioid overdoses during that period.