The opioid epidemic began in the 1990s when doctors prescribed a tremendous amount of opioid painkillers to help treat pain — a serious problem, given that chronic pain alone afflicts about 100 million Americans.
But one reason doctors were so willing to prescribe these painkillers, despite the clear risks of addiction and overdose, is heavy marketing from the pharmaceutical industry.
Andrew Kolodny and other public health experts explained the history in the Annual Review of Public Health, detailing Purdue Pharma's involvement after it put OxyContin on the market in the 1990s:
Between 1996 and 2002, Purdue Pharma funded more than 20,000 pain-related educational programs through direct sponsorship or financial grants and launched a multifaceted campaign to encourage long-term use of [opioid painkillers] for chronic non-cancer pain. As part of this campaign, Purdue provided financial support to the American Pain Society, the American Academy of Pain Medicine, the Federation of State Medical Boards, the Joint Commission, pain patient groups, and other organizations. In turn, these groups all advocated for more aggressive identification and treatment of pain, especially use of [opioid painkillers].
Often, these campaigns propagated highly misleading claims — including assertions that OxyContin and other new opioid painkillers were safer than other medications on the market.
The claims were so misleading, in fact, that Purdue Pharma eventually paid hundreds of millions of dollars in fines for them. The Associated Press reported in 2007: