Fault Lines

Opioid wars

Fault Lines investigates the battle over the most popular and controversial drugs in the US, opioid painkillers.

The United States is in the midst of the worst drug addiction epidemic in its history. But it is not a crisis of illegal drugs, it is one of prescription painkillers.

With well over 100,000 deaths, this is the worst man-made epidemic in history ... made by organised medicine.

by Dr Gary Franklin, Department of Labor and Industries, Washington

The US consumes more than 80 percent of the global supply of opioids, and overdoses from prescription opioid drugs kill nearly 17,000 Americans every year, which is one overdose death every 30 minutes.

As the painkiller epidemic has spread, drug company profits from opioids have soared. Over the last 10 years, revenues from opioid painkillers have more than doubled; in 2012 the figure was more than $9bn.

And as the market has grown, so has the incentive to get more and more lucrative drugs approved by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA).

Dr Andrew Kolodny is an addiction specialist who advocates for reform in opioid drug policy. He says: “They launched a marketing campaign and an educational campaign to convince the medical community that we had been underprescribing opioids. To convince us that we had been allowing patients to suffer needlessly because of what they called an overblown fear of addiction.” 

In October 2013, the FDA approved a powerful new opioid painkiller called Zohydro over the objections of its own medical advisors and dozens of lawmakers. 

So why did the FDA approve Zohydro in the midst of the worst crisis of prescription drug addiction and overdoses in US history?

Fault Lines investigates the politics behind the US prescription opioid epidemic.