Opioids are a class of drugs that includes both illegal drugs (such as heroin and illicitly produced fentanyl) and legal medications (including oxycodone, hydrocodone, codeine, and morphine, which are prescribed by doctors to treat acute and chronic pain).
Opioid abuse has become a nation-wide epidemic with enormous human, social, and economic costs. Between 1999 and 2016, opioid overdoses killed more than 350,000 people in the United States. In 2016 alone, opioid overdoses accounted for more than 42,000 deaths. In addition to the human cost, some experts estimate the economic cost of the opioid epidemic (from lost workplace productivity, health care costs, and expenditures on criminal justice, education and social welfare) to be in the billions of dollars.
As shocking as these statistics are, they paint a relatively simplistic picture of the crisis, one which plaintiff lawyers are attempting to exploit in order to extract large payouts from the pharmaceutical companies that manufacture legal painkillers.
The reality is more complicated. Although prescription painkillers can be highly addictive for some people, only 1 to 2 percent of opioid patients are likely to develop a “pain reliever use disorder,” which includes medication overuse as well as outright addiction. Of those who do become addicted to prescription painkillers, the majority have underlying mental health issues or a history of alcohol or drug addiction.
Although experts estimate that a significant minority of opioid overdose deaths (40 percent) are attributable to the misuse of legal opioids, the vast majority of those who die from opioid overdoses were never prescribed the medication and are using drugs obtained illegally.
All of this paints a complex public health picture that requires a comprehensive and interdisciplinary response uninhibited by frivolous lawsuits.