In few places are the effects of the opioid epidemic clearer than in Portsmouth, a town near Ohio’s borders with West Virginia and Kentucky. About 10 percent of babies are born addicted to opioids. At one point, nine “pill mills” operated out of this region of 80,000 people. About 20 people a year die of drug overdoses. Last year, for every resident, more than 100 doses of opioids were prescribed and dispensed.
Ask someone here whether the risks of opioid addiction are minimal, and some snort or roll their eyes.
“Around here, we call it ‘pharmageddon,’ ” said Lisa Roberts, the public health nurse for the town, whose primary job is to reduce the fatalities associated with drug use. “This has been absolutely devastating to Appalachia. From what we’ve seen, the risks of addiction were tremendous.”
For decades, many doctors had been wary of prescribing opioids except for use by cancer patients and the terminally ill.
In 1992, for example, a survey of state medical board members, most of them physicians, found that only 12 percent described prescribing opioids for an extended period for chronic pain as a “lawful and generally acceptable medical practice.”
Advocates for opioid prescription, backed in part by drugmakers, set about seeking to change those attitudes. More than 20 states changed their rules. And in December 1995, these marketing efforts surged as Purdue Pharma introduced OxyContin, a controlled-release form of the opioid oxycodone.
From 1996 to 2000, the company doubled its sales force from 300 to 671, according to a 2003 report by what was then the General Accounting Office. The amount of sales bonuses Purdue Pharma offered tied to OxyContin grew from $1 million a year to $40 million a year. It sponsored pain-related Web sites, advertised in medical journals and paid influential doctors such as Portenoy to talk to other physicians.
As the number of overdoses and reports of addicts rose in the early 2000s, key questions arose. How were the addicts becoming addicted? Was it by going to the doctor with a legitimate pain and getting a legitimate prescription? Or was it just people seeking a high and buying the prescription drugs off the street?
If it was only the latter, limiting prescriptions might have little direct effect on the problem and could penalize pain sufferers.
But it was both. Although many addicts started on opioids just to get high, experts say, a good portion arrived at their habits after coming into contact with opioids after a doctor’s visit for a legitimate pain. That’s how Leslie Cooper came to the drug, and it is reportedly the way some celebrities became addicted: Rush Limbaugh, Matthew Perry, Cindy McCain.
Other trials have reported that significant numbers of pain patients are addicted. In one review out of Yale School of Medicine, investigators found that diagnoses of addiction are “common” in patients given opioids for back pain, with as many as 24 percent engaging in “aberrant” or peculiar ways of taking the pills.