Opioids kill more people than they cure. Every day in the United States, some 140 people die from taking opioids – addictive opiate-based drugs. They’ve become the leading cause of death among the under-50s, ahead of road accidents and firearms. France24’s US correspondents, Valérie Defert, Baptiste Fenwick, Hayde Fitzpatrick and Romain Jany, take a look at the deadly opioid crisis.
Opioids are neither viruses nor bacteria, but painkillers. In the United States, they are prescribed in abundance and are perfectly legal for a small injury or a tooth extraction. Opioids are analgesics, highly powerful painkillers, derived from opium. But many patients become addicted to the drug in just a few days and today this medication, which can cause fatal overdoses, actually kills more people than it cures.
As soon as we began reporting, we became aware of the magnitude of the problem. Millions of patients have become addicted to opioids unintentionally, simply because their doctor prescribed them painkillers after an injury or an operation. Many people have played a role in this health scandal: the government and its agencies, influenced by pharmaceutical lobbies and unable to regulate themselves; the pharmaceutical companies, which concealed the danger of certain drugs, eyeing tens of billions of dollars in profits; and some unscrupulous doctors.
The situation has been exacerbated by dangerous political decisions. A recent Washington Post investigation revealed that in April 2016, at the height of the opioid crisis, and under pressure from pharmaceutical lobbies, Congress passed a series of laws easing the rules on painkiller distribution.
National health emergency
Nevertheless, as soon as he came to power, Donald Trump vowed to act on this overdose epidemic. On October 26, 2017, he declared the opioid crisis a “national health emergency”. Many commentators believe Trump acted quickly to satisfy his electoral base, because those worst affected by the opioid crisis are white, middle-class Americans, living in the centre of the country. But several months after his announcement, nothing has changed, as the funds have still not been released.
Another scandal was Donald Trump’s appointment of Tom Marino to deal with the opioid crisis. Marino is the Republican Congressman who was tasked with helping pass the laws that favoured the pharmaceutical industry in the first place.
Finally, why did the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) authorise the sale of opioids, such as Oxycontin in 1998, without conducting valid scientific tests? And amid the current addiction epidemic, why has the FDA decided not to ban this drug? After all, we now know that the Purdue Pharma laboratory concealed the addictive nature of these pills. It was even fined 600 million dollars, a record in the United States. We contacted the FDA, which claims to take the crisis “very seriously”. But no restrictions have been taken and Oxycontin is still prescribed today.
After filming this report, it’s incredibly frustrating to realise that although everyone is talking about the crisis, nothing changes. Every day, thousands of Americans continue to put their lives in danger, without even knowing it.