The problem with these three books, and it’s a big one, is that they treat the Purdue story as though it were the whole story of the opioid epidemic. But OxyContin did not give rise to opioid addiction, although it jump-started the current epidemic. Heroin has been a common street drug ever since it was banned in 1924. Morphine has also been widely abused.
Nor would taking OxyContin off the market end the epidemic. The overwhelming majority of opioid deaths are caused not by OxyContin but by combinations of fentanyl, heroin, and cocaine, often brought in from China via Mexican cartels, and frequently taken along with benzodiazepines (such as Valium or Xanax) and alcohol. These drugs are cheaper and stronger, particularly fentanyl. Fentanyl was first synthesized in 1960, and soon became widely used as an anesthetic and powerful painkiller. It is legally manufactured and highly effective when used appropriately, often for short medical procedures such as colonoscopies. The illicit production and street use is relatively new, but it is now the main cause of most opioid-related deaths (nearly 90 percent in Massachusetts).
The steady increase in opioid deaths after OxyContin came on the market has been supplanted by a much faster increase starting around 2013, when heroin and fentanyl use increased dramatically. We now have two epidemics—the overuse of prescription drugs and the much more deadly and now largely unrelated epidemic of street drugs. By concentrating on the first, we are closing the barn door after the horse is long gone.