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Open bottle of pills on top of money focus on bottom pills and calculatorIn separate lawsuits, brought in Illinois and California, local authorities have charged that five large pharmaceutical firms behaved illegally in promoting painkilling drugs to consumers and healthcare providers. Specifically, the suits assert that through “aggressive marketing” tactics, the pharmaceutical companies pushed doctors to prescribe powerful opioid drugs to patients whose ailments did not meet the extreme conditions for which these drugs initially were developed. The result, according to the attorneys bringing the suits, has been a vast increase in addiction rates and incalculable damage to society.

Opioid painkillers, more commonly known by brand names such as OxyContin, Percoset, or Fentora, originally emerged as solutions for patients suffering from extreme, acute pain that could not be relieved by other drugs. These patients were severely disabled by their pain or suffered from serious conditions such as cancer. The prescriptions were intended to be limited, because of the substantial risk of addition that the painkilling drugs created.

According to the recent lawsuits though, the pharmaceutical companies—Janssen Pharmaceuticals, Purdue Pharma, Actavis, Endo Health Solutions Inc., and Cephalon—put their desire for increased profits ahead of their responsibility to help doctors prescribe their products appropriately. They allege that pharmaceutical sales representatives encouraged doctors to prescribe the drugs for less severe pain and injuries, to create a broader market of end users for their products. In addition, the lawsuits argue that some of the companies tried to downplay the risk of addiction in their general marketing communications. For example, the maker of OxyContin claimed in its marketing materials that the drug, taken orally, was unlikely to create addictions among users; it ignored evidence that other methods of consumption greatly increased the risk.

These misleading claims in turn have led to significantly negative implications for society, according to the lawsuits. No one questions the fact that rates of opioid addition have increased rapidly in recent years. What is at question is why. According to the City of Chicago and two California counties, these increased rates can be attributed directly to the misleading, irresponsible, and unethical marketing practices of the drug companies. As a result, even people who are not directly affected by the epidemic suffer, because taxpayers must pay the millions of dollars in health care costs associated with dealing with drug addiction. For example, Chicago has asserted that more than 1000 emergency room visits in one year stemmed from opioid abuse or overdoses.

According to one of the district attorneys bringing suit in California, the goal of these legal efforts is not to limit the company’s ability to sell but rather to “require these companies to change their conduct and to tell people—to tell the doctors, to tell the patients—tell them that these drugs are dangerous. Tell them they are addictive, and you could overdose on them, and you could die.”

SOURCE:John Schwartz, “Chicago and 2 California Counties Sue Over Marketing of Painkillers,” The New York Times, August 24, 2014, http://www.nytimes.com

Discussion Question

Who is responsible for making sure that patients take prescribed medications as instructed, to avoid the potential for addiction?

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