Matthew T. Mngino
July 15, 2016
Drug overdoses are
the leading cause of accidental death in the United States. According to the
Center for Disease Control there were 47,055 lethal drug overdoses in 2014.
Opioid addiction is the driving force behind the crisis. More than 194,000
people have died since 1999 from abusing opioid painkillers, including
OxyContin. The prescription drug epidemic is also fueling a heroin crisis that
is shattering communities, taxing law enforcement and draining local government
The opioid epidemic is not new. In 2001, as a prosecutor in western Pennsylvania,
I wrote an op-ed for the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette about the scourge of OxyContin
abuse. At the time, my office led a series of workshops with the manufacturer
of OxyContin, Purdue Pharma, to educate health care providers, law enforcement
and the public about the potential dangers of opioid abuse.
OxyContin was approved by the government in 1995 and launched for use in the
U.S. in 1996. FDA approval was granted to Purdue because of the drug’s 12-hour
time release component. At the time those suffering from chronic pain only had
temporary relief every four hours.
There were also concerns at the time that pain killers were being abused.
OxyContin’s time-release component would stop the drug’s recreational use by
eliminating the possibility of a high.
The exact opposite occurred. Within a couple of years, OxyContin exploded on to
the illicit drug scene. The time-release aspect of OxyContin was easily
defeated by chewing or crushing the tablet--causing a powerful high.
As the abuse of OxyContin became overwhelmingly evident, Purdue Pharma, the
manufacturer of OxyContin, began to track the surge in prescriptions, according
to the Los Angeles Times.
Purdue had the opportunity to stop the supply of OxyContin to offices and
clinics across the country that were serving as nothing more than pill mills
generating enormous profit and providing very little medical care.
The Times investigation found that, for more than a decade, Purdue collected
extensive evidence suggesting illegal trafficking of OxyContin and, in many
cases, did not share it with law enforcement or cut off the flow of pills. A
former Purdue executive, who monitored pharmacies for criminal activity,
acknowledged that even when the company had evidence of pharmacies colluding
with drug dealers, it did not stop supplying those stores.
Purdue knew about many suspicious doctors and pharmacies from prescribing
records, pharmacy orders, field reports from sales representatives and, in some
instances, its own surveillance operations, according to court and law
enforcement records discovered by the Times.
The penalty for this type of conduct? The Slacker family, owners of 100 percent
of Purdue Pharma, was listed in Forbes this year as one of the richest families
in America. As the result of OxyContin, the Slackers are worth more than $14
What being done to combat the opioid epidemic?
This summer, New York Governor Andrew Cuomo signed legislation to combat the
opioid and heroin crisis by increasing access to treatment, expanding community
prevention strategies, and limiting over-prescribing of opioids in his state.
Pennsylvania Governor Tom Wolf recently committed $34 million to address the
state’s opioid abuse crisis. Wolf said his action is “a start” as the state
begins to explore and understand the scope of the opioid epidemic.
This week, Congress gave final passage to legislation that will help
communities’ combat opioid and heroin abuse. The bill will provide grant
programs for addressing opioid abuse and treatment.
“This is a historic moment, the first time in decades that Congress has passed
comprehensive addiction legislation, and the first time Congress has ever
supported long-term addiction recovery,” Ohio Senator Rob Portman, one of the
bill’s sponsors, told Roll Call.
— Matthew T. Mangino is of counsel with Luxenberg, Garbett, Kelly & George
P.C. His book, “The Executioner’s Toll, 2010,” was recently released by
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