In 1996, pharmaceutical firm Purdue Pharma launched a campaign informing patients and doctors that a new, safe drug was available to combat pain that was not the result of cancer, surgery or trauma.
This pill could relieve chronic back pain caused by daily physical demands. And it was safe because it would slowly release its narcotic ingredients, making it unlikely to become addictive, it said.
The drug caused a cultural shift in the way physicians treated pain and how Americans viewed it.
“It was this change in prescribing practices that would lead to our public health crisis,” said Dr. Andrew Kolodny, executive director of Physicians for Responsible Opioid Prescribing.
Two decades later, the country faces record mortality rates associated with drug overdoses, including those related to heroin, an option many addicts turn to as a cheaper and more accessible alternative to painkillers.
Now the federal government, states, drug manufacturers and health providers are scrambling to find ways to confront an epidemic that began in the doctor's office rather than the street, and is affecting a more diverse swath of America.
The number of deaths from prescription drug overdoses jumped 242% in less than 20 years, from 7,523 in 1999 to more than 25,000 by 2014, according to the National Institutes of Health. The number of opioid prescriptions also rose significantly in the U.S., from 116 million in 1999 to 207 million in 2013, according to figures from IMS Health.
Kolodny said the rise was largely the result of that 1996 campaign touting Purdue's new drug OxyContin. Its sales grew from $45 million in its first year to $1 billion four years later.