Narcotic painkillers, called opioids, are the most widely prescribed class of drugs in the United States. In the last decade, the number of prescriptions that doctors write annually for drugs like OxyContin, Vicodin, Fentanyl and Methadone has jumped fourfold.
But, why has painkiller usage in the United States gotten so out of hand? And, are people truly aware of the dangers of taking such dangerous medications?
Two US Senators are wondering the very same thing. As, according to a New York Times report, Sens. Max Baucus (D-Mont.) and Charles Grassley (R-Iowa) have launched an investigation looking to see if there are financial ties between makers of prescription painkiller drugs, pain experts, and groups designed to advise patients on proper medical care- which could potentially be the reason for the grossly abundant usage.
The U.S. Senate Finance Committee has opened the investigation as a bi-partisan effort in their roles as members of the committee. Baucus is currently chair of the Finance Committee and Grassley remains an outspoken critic of the Food and Drug Administration, the pharmaceuticals and medical device industries, and an advocate for patients’ rights.
In a letter, the Senate Finance Committee said that it was undertaking the inquiry to make sure that doctors and patients were getting accurate information about the medications’ risks and benefits, uncolored by the financial interests of producers.
Opioids are some of the most abused drugs (legal or illegal) in the U.S. And, overdoses with these medications have been linked to a growing number of untimely and unexpected deaths and serious injuries in recent years, just as their use multiplies in the population.
In a statement to the public announcing the launch of the investigation, Senator Baucus said “Overdoses on narcotic painkillers have become epidemic and it’s becoming clear that patients aren’t getting a full and clear picture of the risks posed by their medication.” Senator Grassley added: “The problem of opioid abuse is bad and getting worse.”
The Senate Finance Committee has informed numerous companies and organizations that lawmakers would like to include them as part of the investigation. It has sent letters to makers of some of the top opioid painkillers on the market. Among the companies selling opioids that received the letters were Purdue Pharma, the maker of OxyContin; Endo Pharmaceuticals, which makes Percocet; and Johnson & Johnson, which markets Duragesic.
In a statement, the Janssen division of Johnson & Johnson said that it strove to provide accurate information about its products and that it intended to work with the Senate committee. A spokesman for Purdue Pharma, James Heins, said the company was looking forward to working with the committee. Endo did not have an immediate comment.
At one time, the use of strong opioids was largely limited to cancer patients or those at the end of life. But in the late 1990s, drug companies including Purdue Pharma started promoting them for broader uses, like the treatment of arthritis, back pain and other conditions.
It was about then that the financial ties between drug makers, pain specialists, patient advocacy groups and other organizations began to grow.