The company that helped start the opioid epidemic in the US may now be able to profit from fighting the opioid epidemic too. Richard Sackler is part of the family that owns Purdue Pharma, the company that makes OxyContin. He was once president of the company and was involved in marketing OxyContin in the 1990s. He is also named on a new patent for an anti-addiction drug. The drug is a new version of buprenorphine, a popular drug used to treat opioid addiction by binding to opioid receptors to reduce cravings without the euphoric effects of opioids. The new drug is in the form of a fast-dissolving wafer, which is supposed to make it harder to divert. Purdue Pharma is thought to be a driving force behind the opioid epidemic. OxyContin was designed to be an extended-release painkiller. Its inventors believed the reason opioids were addictive was because they started working immediately, and that by delaying the effects of the drug, they could create a painkiller that was both longer lasting and less addictive. As we know now, it turned out not to be true that OxyContin is not addictive. In fact, the high dosage contained in each pill has made it popular among people addicted to opioids, who have no intention of using it as directed. However, it was not a simple miscalculation that led to the opioid crisis. Starting in the mid 1990s, Purdue Pharma launched a marketing campaign to convince doctors that OxyContin was safe and that pain was receiving too little serious attention. This push included massive spending on educational programs pushing for more aggressive diagnosis and treatment of pain, including treating chronic pain with long-term use of opioid drugs. This led to massive overprescription. For example, people who had wisdom teeth removed may have been prescribed a month’s worth of Vicodin when three days is usually plenty. This overprescription had two major effects. First, more people became dependent on opioids by taking medication as prescribed. And second, there were a lot of extra pills around for people to sell on the street, give to friends, or leave for bored teens to find. For its role in creating the opioid epidemic, Purdue Pharma and three of its top executives were fined more than 630 million dollars and the three executives were criminally sentenced to 400 hours of community service. However, Purdue Pharma also made about 35 billion dollars from the sales of opioids. Whether the profits from this new anti-addiction drug will reach the billions remains to be seen. Most people taking Suboxone, the leading form of buprenorphine, are not trying to divert their medication. The new drug will probably be most useful in prisons where inmates sometimes try to sell their buprenorphine to other inmates who are trying to stave off opioid withdrawal. It’s a fairly small niche. Nevertheless, many people are understandably angry that the same people who profited by creating this problem are now trying to profit by solving it.
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