Since 1999, the rate of drug overdose deaths has tripled in the U.S., rising to 63,600 deaths in 2016. This represents a 21 percent increase in deaths from 2015 alone, according to a U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s (CDC) National Center for Health Statistics (NCHS) report.1 The majority of the overdose deaths — 66 percent — involved opioids, a class of drugs so addictive and dangerous that the opioid epidemic was declared a public health emergency in 2017.
To put this in perspective, drug overdose deaths from opioids totaled 42,249 in 2016, which is over 1,000 more deaths than were caused by breast cancer that same year.2 To say it again, more Americans are now dying from overdosing on opioids than from breast cancer. Such deaths have also surpassed deaths from AIDS during the peak of its epidemic.
Robert Anderson, chief of the mortality statistics branch at the National Center for Health Statistics (NCHS), told the Daily Journal, “We’ve gone well beyond [the AIDS epidemic] now… It’s hard to take in.”3 The official death rates for the calendar year of 2017 appear to be rising still, with provisional data already at an estimate of more than 66,000 overdose deaths. “The fact that the data is incomplete and they represent an increase is concerning,” Anderson told CNN.4
Alarmingly, drug overdoses are now the leading cause of death for Americans under the age of 50, with the deaths being driven by synthetic opioids like fentanyl, which can be anywhere from 500 percent to 1,000 percent more potent than morphine.5 The NCHS report revealed that the rate of deadly overdoses from synthetic opioids rose an average of 88 percent a year since 2013. “We’re talking about more than an exponential increase,” Anderson said of deaths from synthetic opioids.6
Pharma and Government Are the Biggest Deadly Drug Dealers
A Charleston Gazette-Mail investigation in 2016 revealed that drug companies shipped 780 million hydrocodone and oxycodone pills to West Virginia over a six-year period, as more than 1,700 state residents died from overdoses of the drugs. That’s enough to provide 433 pills for every person (including children) in the state.
Drug distributors, including the largest drug company in the U.S., McKesson Corp., seemingly looked the other way while shipping massive amounts of the drugs to small mom-and-pop pharmacies.7 McKesson was under investigation by the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) for years, with investigators amassing evidence that the company failed to report suspicious orders for painkillers, turning a blind eye and sending massive amounts of the drugs to pharmacies supplying drug rings.
A joint investigation by The Washington Post and 60 Minutes revealed the DEA team working on the case wanted to revoke the company’s registrations to distribute controlled substances from 30 of the company’s drug warehouses, along with fining them more than $1 billion.8 There was more than enough evidence that the company “failed to review orders for suspicious activity,” “supplied controlled substances in support of criminal diversion activities” and “ignored [their] own procedures designed to prevent diversion.”
The company also allegedly raised thresholds, or self-imposed limits on how big orders could be, in order to avoid red flags. In the case of McKesson’s Aurora, Colorado, warehouse, hundreds of thousands of pills were shipped to a small town in the state — about the same number of pills being sent to major medical centers near Denver.
The pharmacist, who was selling up to 2,000 pain pills a day in a city with a population of 38,000 people, was eventually convicted on drug trafficking charges, but McKesson, which was the pharmacy’s main supplier, was not charged.
It’s but one blatant example of corruption cited by the joint investigation. What’s more, McKesson was already fined more than $13 million in 2008 for similar activities, including failing to report suspicious hydrocodone orders from online pharmacies, and had pledged to conduct better monitoring and reporting in the future.
In a memo, DEA official Imelda L. Paredes noted, “Notwithstanding, their bad acts continued and escalated to a level of egregiousness not seen before … They were neither rehabilitated nor deterred by the 2008 [agreement].”9
The Sacklers (Purdue Pharma), McKesson and the US Government — Criminal Gangsters
David Schiller, retired assistant special agent in charge of DEA’s Denver field division, who worked on the McKesson case, told the Post, “This is the best case we’ve ever had against a major distributor in the history of the Drug Enforcement Administration.” But McKesson was never criminally charged.
Instead, they were given a mere slap on the wrist, including temporary suspension of controlled substance shipments at four of its distribution centers and a $150 million fine (the company makes profits of about $100 million a week). The Washington Post reported:10
“[T]op attorneys at the DEA and the Justice Department struck a deal earlier this year with the corporation and its powerful lawyers, an agreement that was far more lenient than the field division wanted, according to interviews and internal government documents. Although the agents and investigators said they had plenty of evidence and wanted criminal charges, they were unable to convince the U.S. attorney in Denver that they had enough to bring a case.
… There would be no criminal charges. No administrative case. No $1 billion fine. The case took more than a year to come to a conclusion. In January, the Justice Department announced that it had finalized a deal with McKesson that included the $150 million fine and the four warehouse suspensions. The company also agreed to increase staffing and retain an independent monitor to assess its compliance. Schiller said he and his team were left demoralized.”
Another name worth knowing in the midst of the opioid crisis is Sackler. The Sackler family, owners of Purdue Pharma, made it onto Forbes’ Top 20 billionaires list in 201511 — in large part due to the burgeoning sales of OxyContin. About 80 percent of heroin drug addicts report starting out on painkillers such as OxyContin.12 Purdue Pharma was also instrumental in driving sales of OxyContin up from $48 million in 1996 to $1.5 billion in 2002.13
In 2007, Purdue Pharma pleaded guilty to charges of misbranding “with intent to defraud and mislead the public” and paid $634 million in fines, which did little to dissuade them from continuing to profit off the deadly drugs. A potential part of the problem is the fact that no specific individuals have ever been charged.
None of the members of the Sackler family was ever charged with any kind of misdeed, for example, and owners and corporate leaders of other drug companies have also walked away scot-free. The Sacklers are further unique in that they’ve been successful in largely separating their name from the deadly product that made them rich. As Esquire journalist Christopher Glazek wrote:14
“To a remarkable degree, those who share in the billions appear to have abided by an oath of omertà: Never comment publicly on the source of the family’s wealth. That may be because the greatest part of that $14 billion fortune … came from OxyContin, the narcotic painkiller regarded by many public health experts as among the most dangerous products ever sold on a mass scale …
Even so, hardly anyone associates the Sackler name with their company’s lone blockbuster drug. ‘The Fords, Hewletts, Packards, Johnsons — all those families put their name on their product because they were proud,’ said Keith Humphreys, a professor of psychiatry at Stanford University School of Medicine who has written extensively about the opioid crisis. ‘The Sacklers have hidden their connection to their product’ …
The family’s leaders have pulled off three of the great marketing triumphs of the modern era: The first is selling OxyContin; the second is promoting the Sackler name; and the third is ensuring that, as far as the public is aware, the first and second have nothing to do with one another.”
Purdue Pharma Sued by the City of Everett, Washington
Meanwhile, it appears once again that leopards don’t change their spots. Purdue Pharma is now being sued by the city of Everett, Washington, which has been hard-hit by deaths from opioid painkiller and heroin abuse. The suit alleges that Purdue Pharma supplied OxyContin to “obviously suspicious pharmacies and physicians and enabl[ed] the illegal diversion of OxyContin into the black market” in the city.15
Mayor Ray Stephanson told CBS News that the city has been significantly damaged and its resources, including first responders and even crews cleaning up syringes in public parks, significantly strained as a result of the drugs flowing into their community.
The case is built around a 2016 investigation by the Los Angeles Times, which revealed OxyContin was being trafficked illegally from California to Washington, and suggested Purdue Pharma knew about it but did nothing to stop it.16 As mentioned, the drug maker is no stranger to litigation. CBS News reported:17
“In 2007, Purdue Pharma and its executives paid more than $630 million in legal penalties to the federal government for willfully misrepresenting the drug’s addiction risks. The same year, it also settled with Washington and other states that claimed the company aggressively marketed OxyContin to doctors while downplaying the addiction risk. As part of that settlement, it agreed to continue internal controls to identify potential diversion or abuse.”
Purdue Pharma attempted to have the city’s lawsuit dismissed, but in September 2017 the chief U.S. district judge for the Western District of Washington ruled that the majority of Everett’s claims could move forward as alleged.18
Urine Tests on Opioid Patients are Another Cash Cow
Many people are getting rich off the opioid epidemic, including some cashing in on urine drug tests. According to data compiled by Kaiser Health News and researchers at the Mayo Clinic, reported by Bloomberg:
“Spending on urine screens and related genetic tests quadrupled from 2011 to 2014, to an estimated $8.5 billion a year — more than the entire budget of the Environmental Protection Agency. The federal government paid providers more to conduct urine drug tests in 2014 than it spent on the four most recommended cancer screenings combined.”19
With the rising rates of opioid abuse and overdose, entrepreneurs targeted doctors to increase urine testing for the drugs, resulting in a lucrative business for all parties involved:
“As alarm spread about opioid deaths and overdoses in the past decade, doctors who prescribed the pills were looking for ways to prevent abuse and avert liability. Entrepreneurs saw a lucrative business model: persuade doctors that testing would keep them out of trouble with licensing boards or law enforcement and protect their patients from harm. Some companies offered doctors technical help opening up their own labs.”20
Bloomberg highlights a network of pain clinics to show just how much money is at stake from the seemingly innocuous task of conducting urine tests on opioid patients. While its founder claims the tests are medically necessary to protect patients from addiction and be sure the patients are taking the drugs instead of selling them on the streets, you’ll quickly see that there are many people making a hefty profit all linked back to the prescription of drugs that are claiming far too many people’s lives:
“This [urine] testing process, driven by the nation’s epidemic of painkiller addiction, generates profits across the doctor-owned network of 54 clinics, the largest pain-treatment practice in the Southeast. Medicare paid the company at least $11 million for urine and related tests in 2014, when five of its professionals stood among the nation’s top billers.
One nurse practitioner at the company’s clinic in Cleveland, Tennessee, single-handedly generated $1.1 million in Medicare billings for urine tests that year, according to Medicare records.”21
If You’re in the ER With Pain, Non-Opioid Pain Relievers May Work Just as Well
If a person comes to the emergency room with severe acute pain, most physicians would prescribe them an opioid to relieve pain. Research published in the Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA) suggests, however, that less risky opioid-free options may work just as well.22
The study evaluated the effects of four different combinations of pain relievers — three with different opioids and one opioid-free option composed of ibuprofen (i.e., Advil) and acetaminophen (i.e., Tylenol) — on people with moderate to severe pain in an extremity, due to bone fractures, shoulder dislocation and other injuries. The patients had an average pain score of 8.7 (on a scale of zero to 10) when they arrived.
Two hours later, after receiving one of the pain relief combinations, their pain levels decreased similarly, regardless of which drug-combo they received:23 “For patients presenting to the ED [emergency department] with acute extremity pain, there were no statistically significant or clinically important differences in pain reduction at two hours among single-dose treatment with ibuprofen and acetaminophen or with three different opioid and acetaminophen combination analgesics,” the researchers concluded.24
Speaking to Vox, the study’s lead author, Andrew Chang of the department of emergency medicine at Albany Medical College, Albany, New York, said, “Some (not all) physicians reflexively think fractures require opioids, but this study lends evidence that opioids are not always necessary even in the presence of fractures.”25
Considering the steep risks involved — even when taken as directed, prescription opioids can lead to addiction as well as tolerance, along with other issues like increased sensitivity to pain, depression, low levels of testosterone and more26 — the less you expose yourself to opioids, the better.
Exploring Non-Drug Options for Pain Relief
If you have chronic pain of any kind, please understand that there are many safe and effective alternatives to prescription and even over-the-counter painkillers. The pain remedies that follow are natural, providing excellent pain relief without any of the health hazards that pain medications like opioids often carry.
|Astaxanthin: One of the most effective oil-soluble antioxidants known, astaxanthin has very potent anti-inflammatory properties. Higher doses are typically required and one may need 8 milligrams or more per day to achieve this benefit.|
|Ginger: This herb is anti-inflammatory and offers pain relief and stomach-settling properties. Fresh ginger works well steeped in boiling water as a tea or grated into vegetable juice.|
|Curcumin: Curcumin is the primary therapeutic compound identified in the spice turmeric. In a study of osteoarthritis patients, those who added only 200 milligrams of curcumin a day to their treatment plan had reduced pain and increased mobility.27 In fact, curcumin has been shown in over 50 clinical studies to have potent anti-inflammatory activity, as well as demonstrating the ability in four studies to reduce Tylenol-associated adverse health effects.|
|Boswellia: Also known as boswellin or “Indian frankincense,” this herb contains powerful anti-inflammatory properties, which have been prized for thousands of years. This is one of my personal favorites, as I have seen it work well with many rheumatoid arthritis patients.|
|Bromelain: This protein-digesting enzyme, found in pineapples, is a natural anti-inflammatory. It can be taken in supplement form, but eating fresh pineapple may also be helpful. Keep in mind that most of the bromelain is found within the core of the pineapple, so consider leaving a little of the pulpy core intact when you consume the fruit.|
|Cetyl Myristoleate (CMO): This oil, found in fish and dairy butter, acts as a “joint lubricant” and an anti-inflammatory. I have used a topical preparation for myself to relieve ganglion cysts and a mild annoying carpal tunnel syndrome that pops up when I type too much on nonergonomic keyboards.|
|Evening primrose, black currant and borage oils: These contain the fatty acid gamma-linolenic acid (GLA), which is useful for treating arthritic pain.|
|Cayenne cream: Also called capsaicin cream, this spice comes from dried hot peppers. It alleviates pain by depleting the body’s supply of substance P, a chemical component of nerve cells that transmit pain signals to your brain.|
Dietary Changes and Additional Pain Relief Options
When physicians don’t know how to effectively treat chronic pain, they resort to the only treatment they know: prescription drugs, which will do nothing to solve the underlying reasons why you’re in pain. Toward that end, if you suffer from chronic pain, there’s a good chance you need to tweak your diet as follows:
- Start taking a high-quality, animal-based omega-3 fat like krill oil. Omega-3 fats are precursors to mediators of inflammation called prostaglandins. (In fact, that is how anti-inflammatory painkillers work — they positively influence prostaglandins.) The omega-3 fats EPA and DHA contained in krill oil have been found in many animal and clinical studies to have anti-inflammatory properties, which are beneficial for pain relief.
- Reduce your intake of most processed foods as not only do they contain sugar and additives, but also most are loaded with omega-6 fats that upset your delicate omega-3 to omega-6 ratio. This, in turn, will contribute to inflammation, a key factor in most pain.
- Eliminate or radically reduce most grains and sugars (especially fructose) from your diet. Avoiding grains and sugars will lower your insulin and leptin levels. Elevated insulin and leptin levels are one of the most profound stimulators of inflammatory prostaglandin production. That is why eliminating sugar and grains is so important to controlling your pain.
- Optimize your production of vitamin D by getting regular, appropriate sun exposure, which will work through a variety of different mechanisms to reduce your pain. This satisfies your body’s appetite for regular sun exposure.
Finally, the natural pain relief methods that follow are useful for ongoing and lasting pain relief and management:
- Chiropractic adjustments: According to a study published in the Annals of Internal Medicine and funded by the National Institutes of Health (NIH), patients with neck pain who used a chiropractor and/or exercise were more than twice as likely to be pain-free in 12 weeks compared to those who took medication.28
- Massage: Massage releases endorphins, which help induce relaxation, relieve pain and reduce levels of stress chemicals such as cortisol and noradrenaline.
- Acupuncture: Researchers concluded that acupuncture has a definite effect in reducing chronic pain such as back pain and headaches — more so than standard pain treatment.29
- 1 NCHS Data Brief December 2017, No. 294
- 2, 4 CNN December 21, 2017
- 3, 6 Daily Journal December 23, 2017
- 5 The New York Times November 3, 2017
- 7 Charleston Gazette-Mail December 17, 2016
- 8, 9, 10 The Washington Post December 17, 2017
- 11 Forbes July 1, 2015
- 12 DrugAbuse.gov, July 2017
- 13 The Fix July 3, 2015
- 14 Esquire October 16, 2017
- 15, 16, 17 CBS News March 14, 2017
- 18 Everett, WA, Purdue Lawsuit
- 19, 20, 21 Bloomberg November 6, 2017
- 22, 24 JAMA. 2017;318(17):1661-1667
- 23, 25 Vox November 9, 2017
- 26 U.S. CDC, Prescription Opioids, About
- 27 Springerplus. 2013; 2: 56
- 28 Annals of Internal Medicine January 3, 2012 vol. 156 no. 1 Part 1 1-10
- 29 Archives of Internal Medicine 2012 Sep 10:1-10 [Epub ahead of print]
Recommended articles by Dr. Joseph Mercola:
- Anxiety Overtakes Depression as No. 1 Mental Health Problem
- How LED Lighting May Compromise Your Health
- Magic Mushrooms May Hold Key to Long-Term Relief from Anxiety and Depression
- Medical Errors: Still the Third Leading Cause of Death
- Photobiology: How Therapeutic Use of Full-Spectrum Light Can Improve Your Health
- Scientific Links Between Processed Foods and Depression
- How Sugar Harms Your Brain Health and Drives Alzheimer’s Epidemic
- The Health Benefits of Intermittent Fasting
- Can a Hug a Day Keep Infection Away?
- The Harmful Effects of Electromagnetic Fields Explained
- The Magic Healing Power of Mushrooms
- 13 Mind-Body Techniques That Can Help Ease Pain and Depression
- The Cancer Revolution: A Helpful Program to Reverse and Prevent Cancer
- Maternal Fluoride Exposure During Pregnancy Correlates to Lower IQ in Their Children
About the author:
Born and raised in the inner city of Chicago, IL, Dr. Joseph Mercola is an osteopathic physician trained in both traditional and natural medicine. Board-certified in family medicine, Dr. Mercola served as the chairman of the family medicine department at St. Alexius Medical Center for five years, and in 2012 was granted fellowship status by the American College of Nutrition (ACN).
While in practice in the late 80s, Dr. Mercola realized the drugs he was prescribing to chronically ill patients were not working. By the early 90s, he began exploring the world of natural medicine, and soon changed the way he practiced medicine.
In 1997 Dr. Mercola founded Mercola.com, which is now routinely among the top 10 health sites on the internet. His passion is to transform the traditional medical paradigm in the United States. “The existing medical establishment is responsible for killing and permanently injuring millions of Americans… You want practical health solutions without the hype, and that’s what I offer.”