The US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) reported last week that about 28,000 Americans died of an opioid overdose in 2017—up from just 3,000 in 2013. While people who use opioids are being charged with murder for sharing drugs with their friends and doctors have begun to ease up on prescribing opioids, pharmaceutical companies that created this crisis (and continue to profit from it) have yet to be held accountable.
Senator Jeff Merkley wants to change that. On Wednesday, Merkley announced that he's sponsoring a new bill that would require the major drug companies that fueled the opioid epidemic to contribute to a $2 billion fund. That money would be distributed to states to be used for substance abuse treatment and prevention. Oregon would receive $23 million from the fund annually for 10 years.
The opioid crisis is an epidemic. We need a massive treatment surge so that Americans suffering from addiction can get help. And we can fund it by holding the pharmaceutical companies responsible for the #OpioidCrisis that they fueled. Here’s how:https://t.co/tJhE7BcQP8
— Senator Jeff Merkley (@SenJeffMerkley) December 5, 2018
“Drug companies flooded the streets with massive quantities of opioids to enrich themselves while a generation of Americans got hooked,” Merkley said in a statement announcing the bill, titled the Opioid Treatment Surge Act. “It is time for those companies to commit a portion of those profits to dramatically increase treatment capacity to address this crisis."
Merkley's announcement didn't identify which drug companies would be asked to pay up. But that list would almost certainly include Purdue Pharma, the inventor of OxyContin. Last year the New Yorker published a damning profile of Purdue and its ruling family, the Sacklers, that indicated those in charge knew OxyContin was dangerously addictive, even as the company sold it to doctors as a chronic pain cure-all in the late 1990s. From the New Yorker piece:
The company advertised in medical journals, sponsored Web sites about chronic pain, and distributed a dizzying variety of OxyContin swag: fishing hats, plush toys, luggage tags.
Purdue also produced promotional videos featuring satisfied patients—like a construction worker who talked about how OxyContin had eased his chronic back pain, allowing him to return to work. The videos, which also included testimonials from pain specialists, were sent to tens of thousands of doctors. The marketing of OxyContin relied on an empirical circularity: the company convinced doctors of the drug’s safety with literature that had been produced by doctors who were paid, or funded, by the company.
It's unclear if Merkley's bill has any chance of making its way to Donald Trump's desk, or if Trump would sign it. Easing the opioid crisis was a major campaign tenet of Trump's—probably because it is erroneously seen as mainly affecting many white, rural Americans in his voting base—and fixing this epidemic has emerged as a rare bipartisan issue in DC.
But this bill specifically goes after the pharmaceutical industry, which has a powerful GOP lobbying presence, so Republicans might not support it.
Purdue alone reported $3 billion in revenue for 2017. So while Merkley's bill would make a dent in pharmaceutical companies' profits, it would by no means match what they earned off of the opioid crisis, which continues to claim thousands of lives.