Purdue Pharma Pleads Guilty to Role in Opioid Epidemic

oxycontin maker will pay $8 billion, shut down company

By Jonny Lupsha, Wondrium Staff Writer

Purdue Pharma will pay $8 billion in damages for its role in the opioid crisis, CNN reported Wednesday. The OxyContin maker will also shut down its company as part of its guilty plea to federal charges. Opioid addiction and deaths have grown exponentially.

Woman taking white pill with water
America’s national opioid crisis involves the abuse of prescription painkillers, which has lead to opioid addictions and fatalities. Photo by fizkes / Shutterstock

According to CNN, a major pharmaceutical manufacturer is facing the music for playing a part in the national opioid epidemic. “Purdue Pharma, the maker of OxyContin, has agreed to plead guilty to three federal criminal charges for its role in creating the nation’s opioid crisis and will pay more than $8 billion and close down the company,” the article said.

“The money will go to opioid treatment and abatement programs. The company doesn’t have $8 billion in cash available to pay the fines, so Purdue will be dissolved as part of the settlement, and its assets will be used to create a new ‘public benefit company’ controlled by a trust or similar entity designed for the benefit of the American public.”

The epidemic of opioid addiction has grown exponentially in recent years, with dependence and deaths skyrocketing.

The Big Picture

So what constitutes an opioid?

Opioids [are] the class of drugs that includes prescription painkillers like codeine, morphine, Vicodin®, and Percocet®, as well as illegal drugs like heroin,” said Dr. Thad Polk, Arthur F. Thurnau Professor in the Department of Psychology and the Department of Electrical Engineering and Computer Science at the University of Michigan. “Opioids have been around for thousands of years and they’ve been the gold standard medical treatment for pain since the Civil War, providing genuine relief to millions of people suffering from severe pain.”

In the 1990s, however, pharmaceutical companies like Purdue began promoting and pushing opioid prescriptions as long-term relief for chronic pain. Dr. Polk said that they became so popular that, in 2016, 12 states had more painkiller prescriptions than residents.

“Furthermore, the distribution and sale of prescription painkillers is extremely lucrative, and some corrupt doctors, pharmacists, and distributors have made a lot of money by supplying these drugs to people without legitimate medical needs,” he said.

“For example, two drug stores around Kermit, West Virginia, sold over three million doses of opioid painkillers in a single year. And you know how many people live in Kermit? About 400.”

Side Effects of Overdose May Include Death

Medically speaking, how do opioids kill their users?

“The deadly effects of opioid drugs are caused by their interaction with opioid receptors in the brain stem that affect breathing,” Dr. Polk said. “In particular, activation of these receptors can significantly suppress the breathing reflex. An opioid overdose can suppress breathing so much that the user suffocates and dies from a lack of oxygen.”

Dr. Polk said that we also have opioid receptors in our digestive system, and activating them with opioids can cause constipation and nausea. However, the brain’s reward circuit also has opioid receptors, which cause a feeling of “peaceful euphoria” when activated. People get addicted to opioids partially because of this euphoric high, and partially because when the reward circuit opioid receptors are activated, they release large bursts of dopamine.

Edited by Angela Shoemaker, Wondrium Daily

Dr. Thad A. Polk contributed to this article. Dr. Polk is an Arthur F. Thurnau Professor in the Department of Psychology and the Department of Electrical Engineering and Computer Science at the University of Michigan. He received a BA in Mathematics from the University of Virginia and an interdisciplinary PhD in Computer Science and Psychology from Carnegie Mellon University.