Tech Companies Dispute Playing Major Role In Opioid Crisis

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Tech Companies Dispute Playing Major Role In Opioid Crisis

By Beth Leipholtz 06/29/18

"The opioid epidemic is, in a majority of cases, primarily an offline problem,” said a representative of the Internet Association.

Image: 
Google headquarters

A summit on Wednesday, June 27, hosted by the Food and Drug Administration, was predicted to draw representatives from Facebook, Google and Twitter, among other relevant tech companies, as well as academics, lobbyists and government officials. 

According to Wired, the FDA said the summit was meant to encourage tech officials to “discuss ways to collaboratively take stronger action" when it comes to illegal opioids in the online market.

However, there was some controversy around the summit due to tech and pharmaceutical companies disagreeing about who was more responsible for the opioid crisis. 

Initially, the invitation for the summit stated that the FDA planned to ask tech companies to sign what it called a “Pledge to Reduce the Availability of Illicit Opioids Online,” which would be published 30 days after the summit. 

However, after discussing it with tech companies, the FDA decided not to follow through with the plan. 

"We will consolidate the feedback and ideas discussed at the summit and turn it into an actionable plan—not just for those in the room but for all internet stakeholders to join," an FDA spokesperson said, according to Wired.

The involvement of the tech industry in the opioid crisis has been a topic of discussion in the past few months in Washington, D.C., Wired states. 

Back in April, at the National Rx Drug Abuse and Heroin Summit, FDA commissioner Scott Gottlieb said that tech companies had not been “proactive enough” when it came to getting rid of illegal drugs online.

Additionally, earlier this month the FDA sent letters to nine companies operating 53 online pharmacies, and instructed them to cease the marketing of opioids. 

But tech companies are fighting back, claiming they aren’t to blame. On Tuesday, June 26, the Internet Association—which represents tech companies like Twitter, Google, Facebook Reddit and more—held a call with reporters prior to the summit.

"The opioid epidemic is, in a majority of cases, primarily an offline problem,” said a representative of the Association, according to Wired. The representative cited research by the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA), which stated that most people misusing opioids get them from non-online sources. 

Of those sales that are taking place online, the Center for Safe Internet Pharmacies cited a report stating that most of them are happening on the dark web. Additionally, the report found that some of the "open" web sites claim to sell opioids but actually do not, and instead steal people’s information.

Despite some tech companies claiming they are not to blame, some steps have been taken to eliminate opioid sales online. Google promoted the DEA’s Drug Take-Back Day in April with a special tool on its homepage.

Additionally, Facebook recently announced it would redirect users who are trying to buy opioids on the platform to a help hotline, and Instagram has begun monitoring hashtags related to opioids. 

Libby Baney, an advisor to the Alliance for Safe Online Pharmacies, tells Wired that this is a start but companies also need to acknowledge the role they have played. 

“This is a historic opportunity to do more with what we already know is true," she said. "If it ends up being us versus them and there’s pointing fingers and a lot of 'We’re already doing this or that,' that's an old-school way of thinking that isn’t responsive to the public health need."

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