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Timeline: A brief history of the opioid epidemic

From OxyContin coupons to fentanyl-laced heroin, this is how the crisis unfolded.

The scale of the overdose epidemic is hard to fathom. In 2016, overdoses claimed 64,000 lives, more than the US military casualties in Vietnam and Iraq combined. The origins of today’s crisis, a perfect storm of potent, easily accessible opioids, trace back to aggressive pharmaceutical marketing and liberal painkiller prescribing in the 1990s and 2000s.

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1970's

Percocet and Vicodin are introduced, but physicians are wary of prescribing them because of their addictive qualities.

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1995

The American Pain Society promotes the “Pain Is the Fifth Vital Sign” standard, urging doctors to monitor pain along with pulse, breathing, blood pressure, and temperature. Purdue Pharma is one of 28 corporate donors.

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1996

Purdue Pharma debuts OxyContin with the most aggressive marketing campaign in pharmaceutical history, downplaying its addictiveness. Over the next five years, the number of opioid painkiller prescriptions jumps by 44 million.

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1997

Arthur Sackler, whose family owns Purdue Pharma, is posthumously inducted into the Medical Advertising Hall of Fame for “bringing the full power of advertising and promotion to pharmaceutical marketing.”

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1998

Purdue distributes 15,000 copies of “I Got My Life Back,” a promotional video featuring a doctor saying opioids “do not have serious medical side effects” and “should be used much more than they are.” It also offers new patients a free first OxyContin prescription.

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2001

The Joint Commission, a nonprofit charged with accrediting hospitals, promotes the now familiar 0-10 pain scale and begins judging hospitals based on patient satisfaction with pain treatment. The commission and Purdue team up on a guide for doctors and patients that says, “There is no evidence that addiction is a significant issue when persons are given opioids for pain control.”

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2002

US doctors prescribe roughly 23 times more OxyContin than they did in 1996; sales of the drug have increased more than thirtyfold.

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2004

With input from a Purdue exec, the Federation of State Medical Boards recommends sanctions against doctors who under treat pain.

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2007

Three drug distributors—McKesson, Cardinal Health, and AmerisourceBergen—make $17 billion by flooding West Virginia pharmacies with opioid painkillers between 2007 and 2012, according to a subsequent Pulitzer Prize-winning Charleston Gazette-Mail investigation.

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2009

The Joint Commission removes the requirement to assess all patients for pain. By now, the United States is consuming the vast majority of the world’s opioid painkillers: 99 percent of all hydrocodone and 81 percent of oxycodone.

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2010

Cheap, strong Mexican heroin makes its way to American rural and suburban areas. Meanwhile, the Affordable Care Act offers addiction treatment coverage to many Americans for the first time. Annual OxyContin sales exceed $3 billion.

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2012

Health care providers write 259 million opioid painkiller prescriptions—nearly enough for every American to have a bottle of pills. The increasingly white face of addiction changes how policymakers frame the problem, from a moral failing necessitating prison time to a disease requiring treatment.

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2013

Fentanyl, a painkiller up to 50 times more powerful than heroin, starts to make its way into the heroin supply. Most of it is illicitly produced in China.

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2015

Seizures of fentanyl have multiplied by fifteenfold since 2013. About 12.5 million Americans report misusing painkillers; nearly 1 million report using heroin.

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2016

An estimated 64,000 Americans die of drug overdoses—more than all US military casualties in the Vietnam and Iraq wars combined. In December, Congress passes legislation allotting $1 billion to fund opioid addiction treatment and prevention efforts over two years.

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2017

President Donald Trump declares a public health state of emergency, which opens up a fund of just $57,000. The GOP tries repeatedly to repeal Obamacare, a move that would take away addiction treatment coverage for an estimated 3 million Americans.

Julia Lurie

Junior Statesmen Foundation and U.S. Air Force Public Affairs / Tech. Sgt. Mark R. W. Orders-Woempner

Originally published on motherjones.com as A Brief, Blood-Boiling History of the Opioid Epidemic

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