1. Opinion

Column: I saw the power of opioids firsthand

Perdue Pharma, the manufacturer of OxyContin, sponsored a book that downplayed addiction risks.
Published Jul. 19, 2017

I tried my first opioid drugs a few weeks ago. First it was Hydrocodone. Then a few OxyContin. Then a dose of morphine.

There were no memorable highs as a result. The opioids that are causing a national health crisis became my friends as I battled the excruciating pain of a kidney stone — my first experience enduring unbearable pain. Those powerful pills were legally — and very carefully — administered in a hospital setting to help me through three painful days of waiting for the stone to pass.

Thankfully, the pain disappeared once the stone was removed surgically, and that ended my intake of major league drugs.

The path from pain relief to a drug-induced, life-threatening high is frighteningly simple. A patient suffering from a chronic condition is prescribed a pain reliever like the drugs mentioned above. Unfortunately, for too many, the pain source doesn't disappear with a 30-minute medical procedure as mine did — and neither do the opioids.

It was coincidental that my opioid experience occurred in the middle of doing research for a public forum on the opioid crisis set for Sept. 7 at St. Petersburg College where I administer programs to inform the public. That research raised my awareness of the benefits and hazards of these ubiquitous pills. And it brought a whole new awareness of pain — my own, and that of those other 999,999 Americans annually suffering chronic pain who need help getting through a day.

How opioids became the go-to drug for pain — and a national epidemic — can only be described as bizarre. It involves a letter to the editor of the New England Journal of Medicine published in January 1980, followed six years later by release of a study of 38 non-cancer patients who were treated for pain with opioids. The letter, signed by two researchers at Boston University Medical Center, reported that only four of 11,882 patients treated with opioids for pain developed an addiction to them. The 38-patient study, by a doctor at Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center, reported that only two of the 38 patients treated with opioids became addicted.

The conclusion drawn from these studies: Opioids are safe. Said the Sloan Kettering researcher: "Opioid maintenance therapy can be a safe, salutary and more humane alternative" to surgery or less effective pain relievers.

Literally, this is what many say broke doctors' resistance to prescribing opioids for pain: A one-paragraph letter to the editor of a medical journal, and one doctor's study of 38 patients. That's how skimpy the research was back in the 1980s and '90s.

Well, there was this one other additional factor that helped seal the deal with opioids for pain treatment. The Joint Commission, an independent, not-for-profit organization that accredits and certifies nearly 21,000 health care organizations and programs in the United States, published a book in 2000 that was required reading for doctors. That book cited studies that claimed "there is no evidence that addiction is a significant issue when persons are given opioids for pain control." And, it pooh-poohed doctors' concerns about addiction side effects as "inaccurate and exaggerated."

Guess who sponsored the book? Purdue Pharma.

Bingo. Purdue Pharma, the same 124-year-old Stamford, Conn.-based pharmaceutical company that in 1992 produced — wait for it — OxyContin. According to Forbes, OxyContin has generated the majority of Purdue's $35 billion in sales, and in 2015 put the company's owners, the Sackler family, at No. 16 on Forbes' list of richest U.S. families (net worth $14 billion).

I'm not saying Big Pharma is to blame for the opioid epidemic. But others do. The attorney general of Ohio, one of the states hardest hit by the opioid crisis, filed a lawsuit in June against a number of pharmaceutical companies, including Purdue, accusing them of sponsoring million-dollar marketing campaigns that "trivialize the risks of opioids while overstating the benefits of using them for chronic pain." At least four other jurisdictions have filed similar suits.

Holding the pharmaceutical companies legally responsible for this opioid crisis may not be as far-fetched as it seems. The litigants are using the precedent set by attorneys general in the '90s to take down Big Tobacco for its cover-up of the hazards of smoking.

Then there's the China factor. The Chinese are responsible for manufacturing a great deal of the deadly fentanyl and carfentanyl opioid analogs that are responsible for the overdose tsunami.

So, to sum up the blame game for the opioid crisis: It's lousy research. It's blasé doctors. It's Big Pharma. It's China. It's American consumers' wimpy aversion to pain. All of the above.

So what are the solutions? Look to the Sept. 7 forum "The Drug Epidemic: How Opioids Became a Death Machine" from 6 to 8 p.m. at SPC's Seminole campus to provide additional insights into not just causes of the crisis but also its effect on the local community. Information can be found at It's free, but advance registration is requested.

David Klement is director of the Institute for Strategic Policy Solutions at St. Petersburg College and a retired journalist. He wrote this article exclusively for the Tampa Bay Times.


  1. A business man and woman holding a sign depicting their political party preference. SHARON DOMINICK  |
    Here’s what readers had to say in Monday’s letters to the editor.
  2. Leonard Pitts undefined
    Don’t wall ourselves off from contradictory opinions, writes Leonard Pitts.
  3. President Donald Trump, right, and former New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani pose for photographs as Giuliani arrives at the Trump National Golf Club Bedminster clubhouse in Nov. 2016 in Bedminster, N.J.
    Here’s some interesting commentary from the opposite poles of the political spectrum.
  4. (left to right) Nupar Godbole, medical student at USF, and Tiffany Damm, medical student at UCF, take part in a papaya workshop at the University of South Florida Medical Students for Choice Second Annual Florida Regional Conference held in the Morsani College of Medicine on February 24, 2019 in Tampa, Florida. Some of the instruments used in abortions, like the manual vacuum aspirator, are used in an exercise with a papaya, to simulate an abortion. MONICA HERNDON  |  Times
    Here’s what readers had to say in Sunday’s letters to the editor.
  5.  LISA BENSON  |  Lisa Benson -- Washington Post Writers Group
  6. Exhaust rises from smokestacks in front of piles of coal in Thompsons, Texas. [Associated Press]
    A proposed rule masquerades as transparency when it actually is a favor to polluters.
  7. Using a tool provided by NOAA, this map shows what parts of the Tampa Bay region would be underwater if sea levels rose 8 feet, which could happen by 2100. NOAA
    The real-world impacts of climate change are accelerating for us in Tampa Bay.
  8. An architect's rendering of a foster care village proposed for Lake Magdalene. Ross Chapin Architects
    Here’s what readers had to say in Saturday’s letters to the editor.
  9. Campbell Park Elementary School is one of the seven schools included in St. Petersburg City Council member Steve Kornell's plan to help homeless students in the school system. SHADD, DIRK  |  Tampa Bay Times
    The City Council appears poised to help homeless families find places to live more quickly.
  10. Kimberly Clemons, 41, a resident of the Kenwood Inn, St. Petersburg receives a free Hepatitis A vaccination from Fannie Vaughn, a nurse with the Florida Department of Health Pinellas County, Tuesday, October 22, 2019. The health department has issued a state of emergency over the hepatitis A outbreak in Florida.  SCOTT KEELER  |  Tampa Bay Times
    The strategy regarding vaccinations is working and benefits all residents.