Opinion

When regulators do too little

Two decades after the FDA approved mass-market opioids, morgues are running out of room

This is the editor's letter in the current issue of The Week magazine.

In Ohio, coroner's offices are running out of room to store bodies, so they've brought in refrigerated trucks. Deaths from overdoses of opioids, heroin, and synthetic painkillers have soared about 50 percent in just a year. The casualties are piling up in every state: Overdoses killed about 60,000 Americans in 2016, The New York Times reported this week. It's hard to put the scope of this ongoing, man-made disaster in proper perspective: Drugs are killing nearly twice as many Americans as gun violence. Terrorism? Not even close. We're losing people to overdoses at a rate equivalent to 20 9/11 massacres every year. In a lawsuit filed last week against five pharmaceutical companies, Ohio joined more than a dozen other states and cities that have charged that drugmakers deliberately used a deceptive marketing campaign to turn powerful opioids into a mass consumer product. Purdue Pharma, it's been shown, told doctors the risk of addiction to OxyContin was "less than 1 percent."

When companies and industries lobby against regulations, they invariably call them "job killing." Undoubtedly, some regulations are needlessly cumbersome and costly. But the failure to regulate can also be a killer — of people, not jobs. In the 1990s, the Food and Drug Administration didn't challenge the claims of drugmakers that opioids were safe and rarely addictive — a decision that effectively legalized heroin-in-a-pill. Today, two million Americans are addicted to prescription opioids, and at least one million more are shooting up cheaper, easier-to-buy heroin and fentanyl. Our kids, parents, and neighbors are dying in droves; courts, police, drug-treatment agencies, and morgues are overwhelmed; entire communities have been hollowed out, as if by a plague. Two decades into a legally created epidemic, lawsuits and the FDA have finally reined in the sale of prescription painkillers. But for hundreds of thousands of people and those who loved them, the reckoning has come too late.

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