Categories Analysis, Earnings, Health Care

Looming opioid epidemic calls for stricter drug regulation

Though the healthcare industry is slowly waking up to the hazards of opioid-based prescription drugs, their sale continues unabated across all markets, putting patients at the risk of serious health issues. It seems a major change awaits the opioid market, which has been shaken by a series of controversies related to drug-overdose.  

Statistics indicate that more than a quarter of the patients who are on opioid-based prescription drugs misuse them. It is estimated that opioid overdose takes the lives more than a hundred patients in the US every day. Inquiries into the rampant abuse of painkillers like OxyContin, which is notorious for its addictive nature, have brought to light the unholy nexus between drugmakers and private clinics.

Opioids are substances used in prescription painkillers. Though they were extracted from opium initially, the formulations currently available in the market have a synthetic base. Patients often tend to abuse them for the euphoric feeling they create. The most popular formulations are codeine, morphine, and oxycodone.

Statistics indicate that more than a quarter of the patients who are on opioid-based prescription drugs misuse them

The underlying dangers of opioid medications came to the fore recently after several hundreds of lawsuits were filed in various states against some of the leading painkiller makers, holding them responsible for the deaths caused by drug overdose.


Earlier this month, Israel-based Teva Pharmaceutical (NYSE: TEVA) and Purdue Pharma, owned by the Sacklers family which is in the midst of a controversy surrounding opioid, agreed to pay substantial amounts to settle cases in Oklahoma after they were found guilty of pushing opioid painkillers into the market without apprising consumers about the negative effects.

The latest to come under the radar of the Oklahoma authorities is Johnson & Johnson (NYSE: JNJ), which is currently facing trial for allegedly contributing to the opioid epidemic by selling its fentanyl patch in a deceitful manner. It is the first civil trial in an opioid-related case in the country, where more than 2,000 lawsuits are currently pending against painkiller makers.

Painkiller sales surge in the US market

The bearish market sentiment weighed down on the shares of Johnson & Johnson after the trial commenced this week. The stock slipped from $135 to just above $130 in early trading Wednesday. Teva, which has witnessed a steady downtrend since the beginning of May, was hit by a selling spree in the final week of the month.


Putting the drugmakers on the defensive, the Oklahoma state authorities alleged that the crisis was caused mainly due to the “greed” of the companies. The findings show that the assurance given by the companies on the safety of opioid-based painkillers, when they hit the market nearly two decades ago, was false.

Related: Teva Pharmaceutical Industries Limited Q1 2019 Earnings Conference Call Transcript

Since then, an increasing number of patients misused them as an alternative to illegal drugs, while the companies took advantage of the relatively weak regulation and made a killing in collusion with private healthcare providers and distributors.  

Worryingly, data show that more than a quarter of the patients overdose on the painkillers and more than half of them develop serious health issues. The problem reached an alarming stage in the last few years, with cases of overdosing rising by a third between mid-2016 and the end of 2017.

The settlements agreed by Teva and Purdue, thereby escaping trial, follow several low-key settlements involving drug distributors and pharma companies over the last decade. It is estimated that at the current rate, more American’s will die of opioid abuse every year than in war. It underscores recent warnings that the country is on the brink of an opioid epidemic as more and more American become dependent on painkillers every year.


As in the case of normal substance abuse, the misuse of prescription medications takes a toll on the economy, and the annual cost is pegged at more than $75 billion, which includes healthcare expenses, criminal justice procedures and loss of productivity. Also, the extensive use of syringes makes users vulnerable to infectious diseases like hepatitis C and HIV.

The line that separates prescription painkillers from illegal drugs like heroin is getting increasingly blurred. When high doses are consumed, the drugs produce results akin to those associated with street drugs. In addition to imposing stricter rules for distribution and prescription, there should be efforts to make the treatment for opioid addiction available to everyone who needs it. Currently, only a small percentage of patients get support.

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