Benzodiazepines: Overlooked Part of the Opioid Epidemic

Benzodiazepines: Overlooked Part of the Opioid Epidemic

February 4, 2020 | Opioid Crisis

Over a two-year period, doctors wrote almost sixty-six million prescriptions for diazepam, alprazolam, lorazepam, and other “benzos.”

These drugs are highly addictive and have extremely harmful side effects.

Doctors often prescribe benzos for anxiety or sleeplessness. These drugs are highly addictive.

Additionally, among older adults, benzodiazepines significantly increase the risk of falls.

Dr. Joanna Starrels, of the Einstein College of Medicine, was concerned about the “alarming” number of older adults who received benzos.

“The elderly face an elevated risk of falls, confusion, cognitive impairment, in addition to overdose,” she said.

“These risks increase even more when elderly patients are co-prescribed benzodiazepines with opioids.

This is the reason why societies like the American Geriatrics Society caution against them.”

Benzodiazepines are responsible for about a third of opioid addiction and opioid overdoses.

What Started the Opioid Epidemic?

According to some, the following 100-word letter in a 1980 issue of the New England Journal of Medicine might have sparked the current opioid crisis:

Recently, we examined our current files to determine the incidence of narcotic addiction in 39,946 hospitalized medical patients who were monitored consecutively. Although there were 11,882 patients who received at least one narcotic preparation, there were only four cases of reasonably well documented addiction in patients who had no history of addiction. The addiction was considered major in only one instance. The drugs implicated were meperidine in two patients, Percodan in one, and hydromorphone in one. We conclude that despite widespread use of narcotic drugs in hospitals, the development of addiction is rare in medical patients with no history of addiction.

Over the next thirty-seven years, researchers cited this letter more than six hundred times.

The average number of citations for such letters was eleven times.

A few years after this letter appeared, the Food and Drug Administration legalized direct marketing to both consumers and physicians.

Television ads quickly followed touting the benefits of prescription medicines and dismissing their hazards.

Simultaneously, pharmacy sales representatives distributed free samples and other materials to doctors.

This combination probably started the opioid epidemic. In 2017, this epidemic claimed over 45,000 lives and created some two million addicts.

Who is Responsible?

Large-scale tragedies usually have several different causes, and the ongoing opioid epidemic is no exception.

Drug manufacturers engaged in an arms race of sorts to see who could create the most powerful prescription painkillers.

The result was a drug like Fentanyl, which is stronger and more addictive than morphine or heroin.

Moreover, some manufacturers buried negative information about the medicine they sold.

They also marketed the drugs to low-income and other socioeconomic groups that were particularly vulnerable to opioid addiction.

These manufacturers made millions of dollars. Drug shipment companies, in the meantime, made billions of dollars.

Under the federal Controlled Substances Act, shipping companies must ask questions regarding drug ingredients, purposes, and so on.

But frequently, these shipping companies simply packed boxes and drove trucks. They did not care about the patients they were putting at risk.

It is also possible that doctors may be responsible. So-called pill mills sprung up in many parts of New York. Physicians at these clinics wrote opioid prescriptions without thoroughly checking the patient’s medical history.

Additionally, some doctors wrote opioid prescriptions even though they were not qualified to do so.

For example, dentists prescribed a huge amount of opioids, ostensibly for root canal and other rather moderate, short-term pain.

Can I Sue?

Just like the opioid crisis had multiple causes, there are also multiple victims. All these victims usually have legal options.

Injured victims or their families might pursue defective product claims. This product defect could be a:

  • Manufacturing defect or
  • Design defect.

Generally, manufacturers are strictly liable for any issues which occur at any time during the manufacturing, shipping, or retailing process.

These individuals are not the only victims. Cash-strapped cities and counties were forced to pick up the pieces of the opioid epidemic. These governments provided services, such as enhanced police protection and medical care, which they could not afford.

Such large-scale claims often involve the public nuisance theory.

This is basically the same theory which was successful in the landmark 1998 tobacco settlement.

Essentially, if a company creates a hazard that affects a large number of people at roughly the same time, that company might be liable for significant damages.

These damages normally include compensation for economic losses, such as medical bills, and noneconomic losses, such as pain and suffering.

Additional punitive damages are usually available in these cases as well. A damages cap might apply in some cases.

The multifaceted opioid epidemic touches millions of lives each year. For a free consultation with an experienced attorney, contact Napoli Shkolnik, PLLC. We have offices nationwide.

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