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Drug Companies Under Investigation by Senate for Possible Link to Opioid Epidemic

When you think "epidemic," you might think of old stories about the bubonic plague or modern-day scaries such as Zika or super-bug STIs. But one of the biggest and most alarming epidemics America faces today has nothing to do with coughing and sneezing, or even obesity. It's drugs. And we're not talking about the illegal kind.

A huge number of Americans are addicted to—and fatally overdosing from—opioids. An estimated 33,000 people suffered opioid-related deaths in 2015 in the U.S. About 15,000 of those were linked directly to prescription painkillers, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. That number has quadrupled since 1999. Needless to say, it's not okay. (Knowledge is power, so here's everything you need to know before taking prescription painkillers.)

That's why a Senate committee is opening up an investigation into whether the practices of five major U.S. pharmaceutical companies, all of which produce prescription painkillers, have fueled the rampant opioid abuse that's resulted in so many overdose deaths. The Senate is looking into Purdue Pharma, Johnson & Johnson's Janssen division, Insys, Mylan, and Depomed, requesting information about sales and marketing materials, internal studies on addictions, compliance with legal settlements, and donations to advocacy groups, according to a release by the U.S. Senate Committee on Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs. The committee's opioid epidemic report says these companies use questionable sales tactics (like downplaying the risk of addiction and starting patients on excessively high dosages) and provide illegal kickbacks to encourage doctors and nurses to prescribe their opioid products.

"This epidemic is the direct result of a calculated sales and marketing strategy major opioid manufacturers have allegedly pursued over the past 20 years to expand their market share and increase dependency on powerful—and often deadly—painkillers...manufacturers have reportedly sought, among other techniques, to downplay the risk of addiction to their products and encourage physicians to prescribe opioids for all cases of pain and in high doses," wrote U.S. Senator Claire McCaskill of Missouri in her letters to the companies.

Opioids interact with receptors on nerve cells in the body and brain to produce euphoria in addition to pain relief, which is the reason they're often abused, according to the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA). Prescription opioids include oxycodone (ex: OxyContin), hydrocodone (ex: Vicodin), morphine, and methadone, which are used to treat moderate-to-severe pain and are often prescribed following surgery or injury, or for conditions such as cancer, according to the CDC. Then there's pharmaceutical fentanyl—a synthetic opioid pain reliever that's 50 to 100 times more potent than morphine, and only used to treat severe pain. While you can get prescription fentanyl, there's also a sketchy illegal market for the drug, which the CDC reports is the cause of most fentanyl-related deaths and overdoses.

The CDC estimates that in 2014 alone, more than 2 million Americans were dependent on prescription opioid painkillers. While half the estimated opioid deaths are from things other than prescription painkillers, these drugs can be gateways to other opioid use (including illegal sources, such as heroin). In fact, four in five new heroin users started out on prescription painkillers, according to the American Society of Addiction Medicine. In fact, taking prescription painkillers for a basketball injury is what ultimately lead to a heroin addiction for this young woman.

Some of the companies have responded to McCaskill's letters: Purdue Pharma told CNBC, "The opioid crisis is among our nation's top health challenges, which is why our company has dedicated itself for years to being part of the solution." And a J&J Janssen spokesperson said, "We believe that we have acted appropriately, responsibly, and in the best interests of patients regarding our opioid pain medications, which are FDA-approved and carry FDA-mandated warnings about the known risks of the medications on every product label." Mylan said that they "welcome the senator's interest in this important matter and we share her concerns regarding the misuse of prescription opioids," and "despite being a small player in this area, we are committed to helping find solutions to the issue of opioid abuse and misuse."

No matter what the investigation reveals, it's crucial to know your stuff when it comes to what's on the Rx slip from your doc. You should also be aware of the common signs of drug dependency and abuse. Some great news to help you feel a little better about this disheartening issue: Exercise might just be the best thing to help combat opioid addiction. (After all, a runner's high is basically as strong as a drug.)

CDC opioid graph

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