Six in 10 U.S. adults take prescription drugs, creating a vast market for new meds to treat the side effects of the old ones. Opioid prescriptions have skyrocketed from 112 million in 1992 to nearly 249 million in 2015, and the nation’s dependence on the drugs has reached crisis levels.
Millions are addicted to or abusing prescription painkillers such as OxyContin, Vicodin, and Percocet. The Centers for Disease Control and Preventions say that from 1999 to 2014, more than 165,000 people died in the U.S. from prescription-opioid overdoses, which have contributed to a startling increase in early mortality among whites, particularly women, a toll that has hit hardest in small towns and rural areas.
The pharmaceutical industry’s response has been more drugs, the Washington Post reports. The opioid market — now worth nearly $10 billion a year in U.S. sales — has expanded to include a growing universe of medications aimed at treating secondary effects rather than controlling pain. In colorful charts designed to entice investors, pharmaceutical makers tout the “expansion opportunity” that exists in the “opioid use disorders population.” Indivior, a specialty pharmaceutical company listed on the London Stock Exchange, sees “around 2.5 million potential patients, the majority of whom are addicted to prescription painkillers,” as opposed to illicit drugs such as heroin. Analysts estimate that each of three submarkets — addiction, overdose and side effects — is worth at least $1 billion a year in sales. These economics, experts say, work against efforts to end the epidemic. If opioid addiction disappeared tomorrow, it would wipe billions of dollars from drug companies’ bottom lines.