SALT LAKE CITY — Americans are now more likely to die from opioid overdoses than car crashes, a National Safety Council report released Monday found.
According to the report, Americans have a 1 in 96 chance of dying from an opioid overdose over their lifetime, compared to a 1 in 103 chance of dying from a car accident.
This sobering statistic comes amid renewed attention on the origins of the opioid epidemic. Documents were released Tuesday from an amended complaint that Massachusetts Attorney General Maura Healey filed in a case against Purdue Pharma, the company that first manufactured the opioid painkiller OxyContin, and its owners, the Sackler family, as well as other company board members, executives and directors. Healey, who first sued the parties in June 2018, is alleging they were aware of the drug’s dangerous addictive properties, yet continued to promote it through an aggressive marketing campaign in order to increase profits — effectively launching the opioid crisis, The Wall Street Journal reported.
It is the first time the Sacklers, a family of well-known philanthropists of art and science with a net worth of $13 billion in 2016, have been held responsible for the company’s misleading campaigns, according to The New York Times. Healey's filing reveals that Richard Sackler, the son of Purdue founder Raymond Sackler, orchestrated and oversaw the company's OxyContin campaigns, encouraging the company’s sales representatives to recommend to doctors that they prescribe patients the highest dose possible of OxyContin in order to yield the greatest profit.
However, it’s not the first time the company has come under fire. In 2007, the company paid $634.5 million in fines after three of its executives pleaded guilty to federal criminal charges for misleading doctors, regulators and the public about the drug’s effects.
Sackler was president of Purdue from 1999 to 2003, but he and other family members "continued to control the company and its decisions" even after the 2007 lawsuit, the Times reported. The family still controls all of the company's assets.
After the drug was approved by the Food and Drug Administration in 1995, Sackler said “the launch of OxyContin tablets will be followed by a blizzard of prescriptions that will bury the competition. The prescription blizzard will be so deep, dense and white,” according to a document included in Healey’s filing.
NPR reported the filing shows that the Sackler family hired hordes of sales representatives to sell OxyContin to doctors, nurses, and pharmacists, worked to influence state legislation, and donated large sums of money to hospitals and health programs that promoted OxyContin — even after they were made aware of significant death and abuse cases.
Utah has not been immune from the opioid crisis induced by campaigns like those led by Sackler. In 2017, the Deseret News published an in-depth series examining the fallout of opioid abuse and overdose in the Beehive State. As Jesse Hyde reported, sales of opioid painkillers, which were authorized by doctors prescriptions, quadrupled between 1999 and 2010. The amount of deaths tied to opioids also quadrupled during that period, with 64,000 people dying in 2016.
That trend has continued. CNBC reported that 70,237 Americans died last year from drug overdoses, most of which were due to opioids, citing a report from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. According to the same report, around 130 Americans die per day from an opioid overdose.
This isn’t just due to OxyContin. In the 2000s, heroin also began to play a large role in opioid overdoses. These days, many overdoses are caused by fentanyl, a synthetic opioid found on the black market, which is cheaper and more powerful than heroin.
Purdue seized on the uptick in heroin- and fentanyl-induced deaths to deflect claims that it should be held responsible for the public health crisis caused by opioids.
“The complaint distorts critical facts and cynically conflates prescription opioid medications with illegal heroin and fentanyl, which are the leading cause of overdose deaths in Massachusetts,” the company wrote in a statement to WBUR obtained by NPR.
A status hearing on the case will be held Jan. 25.