Guest Blog | RPC Casualty |Opioids: The pain persists
"Epidemic"; "crisis"; "timebomb"; these are the dramatic terms used to describe the impact opioids continue to have on society. Evolving issues are sparking increasing concern for those involved in the development, manufacture and supply of prescription drugs, including their insurers.
In the US, the scale of litigation against opioid manufacturers is growing rapidly; campaigners say that pharmaceutical companies promoted and encouraged opioid use in the 1990s and early 2000s as the default treatment for pain, benefitting from mass production and high demand. Those manufacturers must now be held to account.
As a result, certain high profile companies are facing group litigation, including Purdue Pharma, the manufacturer of prescription painkiller Oxycontin. Allegations centre around the marketing material used to promote the drug, which is said to have underplayed the associated risks of addiction. Purdue Pharma is alleged to have "actively participated in conspiracy and fraud to portray the prescription painkiller as non-addictive" despite knowing the risk Oxycontin posed to users.
In an attempt to tackle the escalating problem of opioid addiction, the US has taken action at federal level, including by enacting the Substance Use-Disorder Prevention that Promotes Opioid Recovery and Treatment for Patients and Communities Act ("SUPPORT"). The Act aims to limit exposure to opioids, promote better practice for addicts, innovate alternative medicines and prevent the illegal supply of opioids.
In the UK last year, the inquiry into events at the Gosport War Memorial Hospital suggested that the prescription and administration of dangerous doses of opioids led to the deaths of over 450 patients. In October, over 100,000 people petitioned for action over the "disregard for human life".
Pharmacy Minister Steve Brine launched a review to identify the causes of prescription drug (including opioids) addiction and prevention, and to implement treatment strategies, by examining the increased use over the last five years. The review is due to report back early this year.
NICE has also issued recommendations - 'Controlled Drugs: Safe use and management', which cover a range of issues (from advice on processing systems, to guidance for obtaining and supplying opioids).
What might we expect to see?
It is impossible to predict at this stage what the outcome of the opioid "crisis" might look like, but these are just some of the developments we can expect to see in the coming months:
- Tighter guidance and increased regulation around the supply of painkillers. Specifically, we can expect to see more focus on the supply of opioids over the internet – only last month, Facebook, Google and Twitter announced that they are working together as part of a new coalition, "Tech Together to Fight the Opioid Crisis", which aims to collaborate on ways to address opioid addiction.
- Increased scrutiny of those who prescribe, administer and advise on the use of opioids which, in turn, could lead to regulatory investigation and/or litigation.
- A continuing interest in developments overseas from claimant law firms in the UK - how events unfold in the US may have a direct impact on any potential UK litigation. Claimant law firms will be closely monitoring what is happening in the US courts before investing time and money in UK claims.
This blog was contributed by Rowan Brown and Emma Kislingbury, RPC