Who Should Be Held Responsible For The Opioid Epidemic?

By Kelly Burch 02/15/19

A new op-ed suggests that to receive "true justice" for the opioid epidemic, "we need to root out all the villains regardless of whether they have famous names."

men trying to hold each other responsible for the opioid epidemic

When it comes to the opioid epidemic, no name evokes more frustration and anger than Purdue Pharma. The maker of OxyContin is widely accused of contributing to the growth of the opioid epidemic by using aggressive and misleading sales tactics meant to get more powerful opioids into the hands of more Americans. 

The Sackler family, members of which founded the company that would become Purdue Pharma, has also come under fire for its perceived role in the epidemic. Not only did the family profit vastly from the sale of OxyContin, new court documents assert that they were directly involved with pushing the drug for more sales.

When it became clear that OxyContin was addictive, they even considered making medications to assist in the treatment of addiction, which would have allowed them to profit from both ends of the crisis. 

The actions of Purdue Pharma were reprehensible, Robert Gebelhoff writes in an opinion piece for The Washington Post. However, he argues that in addition to punishing them, the country needs to seek punishment and retribution for others who contributed to the crisis.

“The opioid epidemic is one of the worst systematic failures of health care in our country. For true justice, we need to root out all the villains, regardless of whether they have famous names,” he writes. 

Gebelhoff calls for holding the medical community and others accountable. 

He writes, “Even if states are able to turn these latest charges into some form of punishment for the Sacklers themselves, what about all those who promoted their cause? What about the researchers who accepted funding from drug manufacturers and carried out campaigns to destigmatize opioid painkillers? What about the officials at the Food and Drug Administration who not only approved OxyContin without any clinical studies on how addictive the drug might be, but also approved a package insert declaring the drug safer than its rival painkillers?”

He also points to government officials who failed to intervene in the crisis, and even made it more difficult for the Drug Enforcement Administration to pursue concerning opioid sales.

At the same time, government policy made it difficult for people to access medication-assisted treatment, which is widely accepted as the best treatment for opioid use disorder. This pattern continues today, according to recent VA research that shows too few people are getting access to medication-assisted treatment. 

“Who holds such practitioners accountable?” Gebelhoff asks. 

Gebelhoff points out that the Sacklers and Purdue are a good target, because they have enough money to help fund access to treatment and other interventions into the epidemic. However, he says, it’s important that other entities be held responsible even if they don’t have deep pockets. 

“The opioid saga—stemming from prescription painkillers—has irreparably damaged the lives of countless Americans over the past few decades,” he writes. “Don’t they deserve better?”

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Kelly Burch writes about addiction and mental health issues, particularly as they affect families. Follow her on TwitterFacebook, and LinkedIn.