While the numbers make it clear that an opioid epidemic is raging across the United States, the origins of that epidemic are subject to debate. New York Attorney General Eric Schneiderman - and 40 of his fellow state attorneys general - want to fully explore the role played by four major manufacturers of prescription opioids.
"Our multi-state investigation is looking - in as comprehensive a way as has ever been done before - to see if any of these companies engaged in any unlawful practices in the marketing or distribution of prescription opioids," Schneiderman said, "and, to that end, we're announcing that we've served investigative subpoenas on four major manufacturers."
The manufacturers are Endo International, Janssen Pharmaceuticals, Tevca Pharmaceutical Industries and Allergan, Inc. According to Schneiderman, opioids, both prescription and illicit, are driving the rising number of drug overdose deaths across the United States.
"What we know so far is troubling," he said. "Lawsuits by some cities and counties and a few states have already chronicled what appears to be some deceptive marketing practices at these companies. There's no doubt that there simply are too many prescriptions for too many opioids in America right now."
In February, Erie County joined those municipalities suing opioid manufacturers. Its lawsuit alleges drugmakers helped fuel the opioids epidemic by spreading the falsehood that the medications are not addictive and potentially lethal.
Opioid manufacturers earn $500 billion each year. The AGs' subpoenas are seeking documents and information regarding marketing and distribution practices. According to Schneiderman, their investigation also wants to review how marketing practices may have ignited the opioid epidemic.
"For millions of Americans, their personal battle with opioid addiction did not start in a back alley with a tourniquet and a syringe. They got hooked on medicine they were prescribed for pain or that they found in a medicine cabinet," he said. "According to the National Institutes of Health, nearly 80 percent of Americans using heroin reported misusing prescription opioids, first."
In 2015, over 33,000 deaths nationwide were attributed to opioid overdoses, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. That figure includes over 2,700 New Yorkers.
The CDC also reports that drug overdoses were responsible for 37 percent of the deaths of Erie County residents between the ages of 15 and 44 - and numbers are expected to climb.