Lessons from 'American Overdose' on the Opioid Crisis

By Roger Chriss, PNN Columnist

The book “American Overdose: The Opioid Tragedy in Three Acts” by Chris McGreal takes a hard look at the opioid crisis. The book focuses on the legal and political side of the crisis, along with a history of Purdue Pharma and OxyContin, and a detailed description of pill mills and rogue pharmacies in Appalachia.

“It is a tragedy forged by the capture of medical policy by corporations and the failure of institutions in their duty to protect Americans,” is how McGreal describes the genesis and evolution of the crisis.

The book highlights the massive collusion and corruption in communities in West Virginia and Kentucky, leading to the Williamson Wellness Center and other pill mills that were protected by law enforcement, ignored by state and federal regulators, and encouraged or exploited by drug manufacturers and distributors.

McGreal also traces the history of Purdue and the Sackler family, and how their efforts to improve pain management led to the creation of the blockbuster drug OxyContin. He explains how Purdue’s marketing claims “proved to be demonstrably false, including an assertion that addiction is rare when opioids are taken under a doctor’s care.”

However, McGreal does not depict Purdue as a lone bad actor. Instead, federal and state dysfunction and disinterest contributed to the crisis. “The FDA wasn’t the only one to drop the ball. A clutch of federal agencies with long names have responsibility for combating drug addiction and overdose,” he wrote. And they all failed.

The failure was both systemic and systematic. As the crisis unfolded, local law enforcement had to contend with “indifference and what they regarded as the political cowardice of the system.” Perhaps more important than the cowardice and corruption was greed, not just corporate greed but also local greed for the money brought in by pill mills: “The businesses did good. You had pharmacies that were doing really good.”

The problem soon extended far beyond Appalachia. Among the earliest and biggest pill mills was American Pain, set up in 2007 near Fort Lauderdale, Florida by twin brothers Chris and Jeff George – neither of whom had medical training.

Opioid addiction also rose across the nation because of cultural factors, writes McGreal. In Utah, “the dominance of the conservative Church of Latter-day Saints appeared to be a cause of addiction, not a deterrent” because of the church’s “toxic perfectionism.”

Government agencies and officials were encouraged to ignore it all. Florida Sen. Marco Rubio’s office wasn’t interested in pursuing pill mills and the “political leadership within Florida wasn’t much better.”

Rudy Giuliani, Eric Holder, and James Comey all helped Purdue, according to McGreal, by delaying investigations of the company as addiction and overdose rates rose rapidly in the 2000’s.

The CDC’s involvement is described as delayed and dysfunctional. "Until 1998 the United States used a classification system lumping heroin, morphine, and prescription opiate deaths together," McGreal points out. Even when CDC researcher Len Paulozzi documented rising trends in overdose deaths, no one paid serious attention until Thomas Frieden, MD, became director. Even then, serious flaws remain in how the CDC reports on overdose deaths.  

Anti-opioid activists Andrew Kolodny, MD, founder of Physicians for Responsible Opioid Prescribing (PROP), and PROP President Jane Ballantyne, MD, sounded warnings about opioids, but offered little in the way of solutions outside of cutting off prescriptions. Many of their warnings proved to be unfounded, in particular with the opioid analgesic Zohydro. The drug was approved by the FDA amid dire warnings of a major spike in addiction and overdoses, but “there was no great surge of overdoses because of Zohydro.”

“FDA officials don’t like Kolodny. They characterize him as unreasonable and difficult. One described him as a ‘complex character’,” McGreal writes.

Similarly, the 2016 CDC opioid prescribing guideline is described as too late to be useful. McGreal looks closely at the debate about the CDC guideline and recommendations from the 2017 opioid commission set up by President Trump. But despite these much-touted steps, “little changed on the ground for states desperate for treatment facilities and help with the social costs of the tragedy.”

The book concludes on a pessimistic note, captured in a comment from Nathaniel Katz, MD, about opioid addiction and overdose: "I don’t really see any prospect for intelligent policy in this area in the United States.”

McGreal summarizes his ideas with an indictment of American culture.

"In large parts of the United States, opioids were popular because they were a fix. A fix for emotional pain. A fix for failing bodies. A fix for struggling to make it in a society that promises so much, and judges by what is achieved, but turns it back on so many of those who fail to live up to that promise," he writes.

If “American Overdose” offers lessons, it is that the opioid crisis is a result not only corporate greed but also American culture; in particular politicians, regulators and a broader medical industry with agendas contrary to the public good. The book is an origin tale of the opioid crisis that offers little hope for the future.

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Roger Chriss lives with Ehlers Danlos syndrome and is a proud member of the Ehlers-Danlos Society. Roger is a technical consultant in Washington state, where he specializes in mathematics and research.

The information in this column should not be considered as professional medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. It is for informational purposes only and represents the author’s opinions alone. It does not inherently express or reflect the views, opinions and/or positions of Pain News Network.