Who Is to Blame for The Opioid Epidemic?

The media has recently been filled with news concerning America’s (and the world’s) opioid epidemic. Stories abound concerning ever-growing levels of addiction, along with alarming trends of death and crime associated with these drugs. Hoping to find solutions, many sectors of society have taken an active interest in the problem. For example, government legislators, the criminal justice system, the civil legal system, the medical community, pharmaceutical companies, and numerous health organizations are some of the players expressing an intent to stabilize and solve the problem. But how did we get into this predicament in the first place? Is anyone in particular to blame? If so, how does society hold them responsible for their actions? In this article, we will discuss these and other issues.

What are opioids?

Opioids are a class of drugs that are generally associated with pain reduction, but which can be highly addictive. Some occur naturally, and some are synthetic. Heroin, an opioid, is illegal. However, many opioids, such as hydromorphone, oxycodone, hydrocodone, fentanyl, and methadone, can be obtained legally with a prescription. Most medical professionals believe that prescribed opioids can be used safely when used correctly, and for a short period of time. While some people obtain the drugs illegally, many people who have become addicted started by taking the drugs with a valid prescription. Unfortunately, because the drugs create a euphoric feeling, once prescribed, they are sometimes misused.


According to the CDC, death from drug overdose continues to rise in the United States, and more than 60% of drug overdose deaths involve an opioid. The overdose deaths involve men and women of all races and people of a wide age range. The CDC estimates that in 2015 there were 62 deaths per day, which involved prescription opioids. According to the National Institute on Drug Abuse, more than 90 deaths occur daily as a result of addiction to and misuse of all opioids. Of course, much harm has also resulted in those who do not die as a result of their addictions. The CDC estimates that in 2015 two million Americans suffered from prescription-related opioid substance use disorders.

Why Have Opioid-Related Problems Increased So Dramatically?

According to research cited in the Washington Post, doctors wrote 112 million opioid prescriptions in 1992. In 2015, the number of opioid prescriptions totaled almost 249 million. Many people accuse pharmaceutical companies of misleading the medical community as to the addiction potential associated with the drugs. Others claim that too often doctors have unnecessarily prescribed opioids or prescribed them to a particular patient for too long a period of time, resulting in unnecessary addiction. Finally, there are some who want to blame most addiction problems on the patient.

Can Pharmaceutical Companies Be Held Liable?

Several governmental entities (such as counties and states), frustrated by the devastating economic cost caused by opioid addiction, have now sued pharmaceutical companies. In fact, Multnomah County, Oregon, has sued major pharmaceutical companies for $250 million. These companies will likely contend that the fault lies with doctors prescribing the medicine incorrectly, or with patients misusing the drugs. On the other hand, plaintiffs will likely highlight their belief that the companies did not adequately disclose the highly addictive nature of the drugs.

Individuals also have sued drugmakers under a number of theories, depending on the circumstances. Some lawsuits are based upon product liability law. Some individuals around the country are pursuing class-action lawsuits. Because this particular area of the law is still evolving, it pays to discuss your unique circumstances with a lawyer familiar with opioid litigation.

Can Physicians Be Held Liable for Medical Malpractice?

Doctors must meet the applicable standard of care when treating patients. This includes prescribing the correct medicines for a patient’s condition, in the right amounts, and for the correct duration of time. Failure to meet this standard of care can result in medical malpractice. Thus, if a doctor has made a mistake in prescribing an opioid that harms a patient, the doctor should be held accountable under Oregon’s medical malpractice laws.

Call a Lawyer

If you or a loved one has suffered from opioid addiction, please contact us with your questions. We believe that society must hold wrongdoers accountable. We can help you investigate whether or not a physician wrongfully prescribed or overprescribed an opioid or committed medical malpractice in other ways. The experienced lawyers at Nelson MacNeil Rayfield will also be happy to answer your questions about the potential liability of pharmaceutical companies and pharmacists. Please call with your questions. 

Helpful Links

Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (“CDC”) Opioid Basics - https://www.cdc.gov/drugoverdose/opioids/index.html

The Atlantic Article – “Are Pharmaceutical Companies to Blame for the Opioid Epidemic?”


CDC Guidelines for prescribing opioids for chronic pain - https://www.cdc.gov/drugoverdose/pdf/Guidelines_Factsheet-a.pdf



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