Published On: Fri, Oct 4th, 2019

Opioid crisis: How opioid epidemic could grip UK after claiming 400,000 lives in US | World | News

IF ANYONE is living proof of the powerful grip of opioid addiction, it’s film star Jamie Lee Curtis. She might be a highly-paid, glamorous A-lister, but within months of being ­prescribed the painkiller Vicodin she was stealing and cheating to feed her addiction. She became hooked in 1989 after taking the opioid after minor plastic surgery, and plunged into a decade of rifling through friends’ medicine ­cabinets and ­pilfering painkillers. “I had a 10-year run, stealing, conniving,” admits the star of Halloween, A Fish Called Wanda and True Lies. “No one knew.”

With professional help, Curtis kicked her habit, but today millions of people in Britain and the US find themselves hopelessly ensnared by the same deadly addiction.

America’s opioid crisis has more than two million people in its grasp, and has claimed over 400,000 lives.

Coroner Dr Kent Harshbarger in Dayton, Ohio, has twice run out of space for dead bodies and rents refrigerated trailers when deaths spike. He said: “If this pace continues, I’m not sure what we are going to do. It’s full every night.”

Addiction experts fear Britain could follow the US into a deadly opioid epidemic. The UK has the world’s third fastest-growing rate of opioid use, a class of drugs that includes codeine, dihydrocodeine, tramadol and morphine.

A recent report revealed that 141 million prescriptions were handed out in the UK for strong painkillers, antidepressants, sleeping pills and anti-anxiety medication last year – a rise from 89 million a decade earlier. Opiate prescriptions rose 22 per cent to 40.5 million.

Despite governments worldwide cracking down on opioid abuse, the carnage continues to escalate.

Opioid overdose deaths are “rising sharply” in England and Wales, according to a recent report by the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development.

But who is to blame? The users who abuse the drugs? Doctors who overprescribe them? Negligent chemists that fail to track patient usage? Pharmaceutical giants raking in ­billions producing the highly-addictive pills? Or government watchdog agencies failing to control their use and abuse?

A major civil lawsuit coming to a US courtroom later this month could finally decide where the fault lies.

Almost 2,000 cases have been combined into one legal juggernaut that pits 35,000 accusers against 348 named defendants. Known as MDL 2804, it is the largest and most complex case in US legal history, and could lead to the biggest penalties ever, with billions of pounds in fines for those profiting from an epidemic of drug dependency and death.

It could dwarf the record-breaking lawsuits that hit the tobacco industry, whose leading companies agreed in 1998 to pay $206billion ­(£166billion) in penalties over 25 years for knowingly ­marketing addictive, cancer-causing cigarettes.

Litigants include US counties, ­cities, hospitals, insurance companies, patients, and native American tribes devastated by the ­opioid epidemic.

The lawsuit points the finger at ­avaricious pharmaceutical giants that overproduced and oversold the drugs, corrupt distribution companies that oversupplied pharmacies, and greedy chemists that over-dispensed them to patients and to criminals who diverted them to the black market.

Opioid overdoses claimed the lives of 47,600 Americans in 2017 (the most recent figures available) and legal painkillers became a gateway drug, setting 662,000 Americans on a path that led to heroin addiction.

Opioids are predicted to kill up to 200,000 Americans a year by 2025. Overdosed opioid addicts have been found unconscious in cars, on park benches and in alleys, littering America like extras in a zombie movie. But not all live to see the dawn.

Street dealers often cut quality opioids with cheaper but deadlier ones such as fentanyl, ­elephant tranquiliser carfentanil, and a dubious array of powerful new synthetic opioids from Mexico and China.

So potent are these drugs that they can kill on contact. Dealers have died cutting up their supply, nurses have collapsed after treating victims and babies have died after touching the drugs.

Life-saving medication Narcan can bring overdose victims back from the brink if discovered in time, but studies have found that these death-defying drugs may be encouraging greater recklessness among opioid addicts.

Many who innocently begin taking prescribed opioids to treat pain after injury or surgery become addicted and turn to the black market, or escalate to heroin and the deadly risks of ­fentanyl. Unlike Jamie Lee Curtis, most cannot afford lengthy stints in rehab. Single mother Madelyn Linsenmeir tried OxyContin at a party and got hooked. She lost custody of her son, her job, and died last October, aged 30. “This disease would not let her go, until she was gone,” read her ­obituary penned by her family in a Vermont newspaper.

In anticipation of the coming MDL 2804 lawsuit, OxyContin manufacturer Purdue Pharma filed for bankruptcy protection last month, evading the trial and hoping to emerge reborn as a quasi-charity devoting future profits to ending the opioid crisis. The Sackler family, members of whom have been named in the lawsuit, owns Purdue and proposes relinquishing ownership of the company and donating $3billion – a fraction of the fortune they made from OxyContin – to a welfare fund. The company would continue producing pharmaceuticals and earning profits, up to an additional estimated $7billion.

The Sacklers see Purdue becoming a trust using those profits to donate to US communities drugs the company developed to combat opioid addiction and overdoses. Yet the Sacklers and Purdue deny wrongdoing.

Though next month’s trial in Cleveland, Ohio, could finally hold corporate feet to the fire, other pharmaceutical giants have previously escaped with a slap on the wrist when sued.

Drug manufacturer Mallinck­rodt produced two thirds of the oxycodone sold in Florida from 2008 to 2012, and was accused of failing to identify suspicious over-orders, yet paid fines of only $35million, less than one week’s worth of its annual revenue.

Opioid maker Johnson & Johnson was fined $572million in Okla­homa last month for a “cynical and deceitful brainwashing campaign” to boost its painkiller sales. It plans to appeal.

But manufacturers, distributors and chemists claim they are no more to blame for the epidemic than gun manufacturers are to blame for mass shootings, and should not be held liable for damage caused by consumers who misuse their products.

They also claim to have followed laws and regulations laid down by America’s Food and Drug Administration and Drug Enforcement Administration.

Yet many believe that both government agencies are also culpable in the epidemic. When OxyContin was first approved by the FDA in 1995 it was ruled effective only for short-term use, but drug companies pressured the FDA and in 2001 it opened the floodgates by ruling that OxyContin was ­available for long-term use.

The DEA controls the distribution of all US prescription drugs and knows where they are sold, yet patently failed to regulate the massive growth of opioid use.

Instead of targeting pharmaceutical giants, the DEA went after small-time doctors who overprescribed – the equivalent of arresting street-corner drug dealers instead of cartel czars.

Many hope the Sackler family does not get away scot-free. “Your average drug dealer gets in way more trouble than this family,” says one rehab clinic owner.

For the family of Madelyn Linsenmeir, any lawsuit comes too late. They remain adamant that blaming addicts is wrong.

“No little girl aspires to grow up and be a junkie,” says Madelyn’s sister Kate O’Neill. “The idea that this is a choice is just absurd, and it needs to stop.”

This month’s court case – or any settlement reached before trial – may at last begin to ­apportion blame for the nightmare whose end is not in sight.

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