Prescriptions issued for OxyContin in the US increased tenfold over six years (1996 to 2002), from 670,000 a year to more than six million. A bulletin from the American Public Health Association in 2009, reviewing the rise of prescription opioids, is titled “The promotion and marketing of OxyContin: commercial triumph, public health tragedy”. The document also asserted that Purdue had played down the risks of addiction. In a landmark case, the company was fined more than $600m in 2007 for misleading the public, but it was making billions – at the time the only company making this kind of money from high-strength opioids.
By 2002 prescription opioids were killing 5,000 people a year in America and that number tripled over the following decade.
Fast forward to today and America is losing almost 1,000 people a week to drug overdoses. Two-thirds of those are opioid fatalities – with the pill problem still pervasive, but with a rising number of heroin and fentanyl deaths.
In 2015, a quarter of drug overdose deaths involved heroin, compared with 8% in 2010.
The US is the epicentre and the origin of the crisis, consuming more than 80% of global opioid pills even though it has less than 5% of the world’s population and no monopoly on pain.
142 fatal overdoses a day
Overdoses killed more people in the US in 2015 than car crashes and gun deaths combined. The daily death toll is 142 fatal overdoses, 91 of them from opioids, adding up to almost 52,000 drug overdose deaths in 2015.