From an early age, most children in the United States are warned to avoid drugs at all costs, especially highly addictive and fatal ones like heroin. However, most children are not told that three-fourths of heroin users were originally addicted to opioid painkillers prescribed by doctors.

In 1996, Purdue Pharmaceuticals patented and began marketing OxyContin, the first FDA approved opioid pain reliever. Although the product was extremely addictive, executives at Purdue quickly created massive ad-campaigns filled with false information, promoting the product to treat everything from chronic back pain to post-surgery pain management.

Through these falsifications, Purdue doubled their sales from 48 million to 1.1 billion dollars over the span of only four years. OxyContin over-prescription became ingrained in the U.S. medical community as Purdue targeted their campaigns toward historically over-prescribing doctors, spending over 40 million dollars in bribes. This money-grabbing tactic has caused not only individuals, but several states, to sue the company. Unfortunately, the lawsuits were to no avail due to the extreme wealth of the industry.

Purdue Pharmaceuticals was the first pharmaceutical company to weaponize addiction to increase sales, as the rise in opioid addiction is directly tied with its overprescription. Once individuals were hooked it was not uncommon to hear horrific stories of people engaging in self-harm, such as breaking their own bones, in order to be prescribed opioids for their pain.

Purdue set the model for Insys, the creator of a fentanyl product called Subsys. Fentanyl is a type of opioid which is 50 times more deadly than the oxycodone. Subsys was only approved for end-stage cancer patients, but the president of Insys used insurance loopholes to get the product widely prescribed for ailments as simple as chronic pain.

When fentanyl came on the market in 2011, the number of opioid-related overdoses went from around eighteen thousand to thirty thousand in just three years. Individuals addicted to prescription opioid medications turned to heroin as a cheaper alternative. As a result, illegal cartels began lacing their heroin with fentanyl to make it stronger and more addictive. Heroin users had no way of knowing whether they were being sold pure heroin. Therefore, overdoses from fentanyl-laced drugs increased in staggering numbers – further benefiting the opioid manufacturers.

Companies like Insys, who manufacture the addictive painkillers, also create Narcan, a product that reverses opioid overdoses. The Massachusetts Secretary of Public Health estimated that without Narcan dozens of people would die every day of opioid overdoses in Massachusetts. Even so, only six Narcan products are FDA approved, half of which are made by companies who also manufacture opioid-related drugs.

This bipartisan issue has plagued both the Obama and Trump administrations. During the Trump presidency last October, the opioid epidemic was finally declared a national health emergency, which is supposed to funnel money towards the issue.

The government must begin by targeting doctors who are overprescribing and close the loopholes that allow companies like Purdue and Insys to market their products too widely. The country must also dedicate time and effort in rebranding opioids and spreading the truth of their danger, just as the nation dedicated itself to rebanding cigarettes. One hundred and seventy two people die per year of opioids, and the odds are that within our lifetime someone we love will be addicted to them. Communities around the country must fight to end this horrific epidemic for the safety and wellbeing of their residents.