The social media sites that young folks so adore also have turned into virtual illicit drug bazaars, helping to explain the exploding problems with the powerful synthetic painkiller fentanyl and why opioids and overdoses of them have become a leading killer of Americans ages 18 to 45.
During the coronavirus pandemic, especially, and continuing onward, Snapchat, TikTok, and other social media apps, including those that allow users to swap encrypted or disappearing messages, have helped to fuel a burgeoning market in Percocet, Xanax, and other prescription pills, the New York Times has reported. Authorities have warned that those drugs by themselves would be hugely problematic but criminal dealers also have taken to tainting their wares with fentanyl — an easily manufactured opioid that requires only minute doses to provide a big kick, fast addiction, and too easy death. As the newspaper reported:
“Overdoses are now the leading cause of preventable death among people ages 18 to 45, ahead of suicide, traffic accidents, and gun violence, according to federal data. Although experimental drug use by teenagers in the United States has been dropping since 2010, their deaths from fentanyl have skyrocketed, to 884 in 2021, from 253 in 2019, according to a recent study in the journal JAMA. Rates of illicit prescription pill use are now highest among people ages 18 to 25, according to federal data.
“Much as drug dealers in the 1980s and ’90s seized on pagers and burner phones to conduct business covertly, today’s suppliers have embraced modern iterations — social media and messaging apps with privacy features such as encrypted or disappearing messages. Dealers and young buyers usually spot each other on social media and then often proceed by directly messaging each other. The platforms have made for a swift, easy conduit during the coronavirus pandemic, when demand for illicit prescription drugs has jumped, both from anxious, bored customers and from those already struggling with addiction who were cut off from in-person group support.”
The big demand spike coincided with criminals’ making more readily available illicit supplies, notably those involving fentanyl, the newspaper found:
“Supplies of tainted pills, crudely pressed by Mexican cartels with chemicals from China and India, have escalated commensurately. Fentanyl, faster and cheaper to produce than heroin and 50 times as potent, made for a highly addictive filler. Last year, the federal Drug Enforcement Administration seized 20.4 million counterfeit pills, which experts estimate represent a small fraction of those produced. Its scientists say that about four out of 10 pills contain lethal doses of fentanyl. The result is that new waves of customers are swiftly becoming addicted, said Dr. Nora Volkow, director of the National Institute on Drug Abuse. ‘When you are putting fentanyl in pills that are sold as benzodiazepines or for pain, you are reaching a new group of customers that you wouldn’t have if you were just selling fentanyl powder.’”
Tim Mackey, a University of California San Diego professor who runs a federally funded start-up that developed artificial intelligence software to detect illicit online drug sales, told the New York Times this about crooked dealers’ adaptation of technology:
“There are drug sellers on every major social media platform — that includes Instagram, Facebook, Twitter, Snapchat, Pinterest, TikTok, and emerging platforms like Discord and Telegram. It’s an entire ecosystem problem: As long as your child is on one of those platforms, they’re going to have the potential to be exposed to drug sellers.”
Social media companies and law enforcement have tried to crackdown on online drug dealing, but just one site reported that it took down more than 100,000 illicit accounts, and expert Mackey estimates that criminals launch 10,000 drug-related accounts monthly. Youthful users and their crooked dealers also demonstrate real savvy about eluding detection when using social media platforms, for example, by perusing posted comments on celebrities and others who might mention a drug. Buried in the long strings of text are surreptitious communications about pill deals.
But even with their technological know-how, young people have big ignorant blind spots, researchers have found, determining by surveys and interviews that they remain oblivious to warnings about fentanyl, opioids (more generally), and the terrible toll of this long-running, significant health menace.
More than 108,000 Americans died last year due to drug overdoses, most of them opioids or synthetic versions of them or illegal, hard narcotics, experts have reported, based on still finalizing data. Those were record-shattering numbers, and they came atop the stark reality that the opioid abuse and drug overdose crisis has killed an estimated 500,000 Americans over a decade.
In my practice, I see not only the harms that patients suffer while seeking medical services, but also the damage that can be inflicted on them and their loved ones by dangerous drugs, especially prescribed products like addictive painkillers from Big Pharma.
The opioid crisis — fostered for years by Big Pharma, doctors, nurses, hospitals, insurers, and others in the U.S. health care system — has entered its latest and notably bad stage with easily and cheaply made, exceedingly powerful synthetic painkillers like fentanyl flooding the country.
The civil justice system has proved to be one of the more potent ways for individuals, families, cities, counties, states, Indian tribes, and others to seek financial redress and a modicum of justice for those who inundated the country with billions more prescription pills than patients could ever consume, fueling the nightmare we’re now experiencing.
Lawsuits have not only started to deliver financial compensation that desperate victims, their loved ones, and communities can use to help those with addiction as well as to cover the whopping public costs of dealing with the opioid crisis, they also have helped to expose the nefarious conduct, especially by Big Pharma, in creating this steadily worsening mess.
Charles Ornstein, now a news executive with the Pulitzer Prize-winning investigative website ProPublica but also himself a dogged, Pulitzer-winning digger into Big Pharma’s mendacity, has reflected on how, finally, drug companies have been forced to disclose the many ways they duped the public about opioids.
The harsh revelations most recently have concerned the lesser-known, relentless, and destructive opioid peddling by the giant drug maker Mallinckrodt. ProPublica did much to pioneer online, public disclosure of doctors’ oleaginous relationships with Big Pharma, the investigator wrote, adding:
“We stopped updating our Dollars for Docs tool in 2019 because the government’s Open Payments database is robust and refreshed annually and has gotten better with time. Still, searching through these documents reinforced my view of how important it is for patients to know about their doctors’ relationships with drug companies and talk directly to their doctors about the drugs they are prescribed. Here are some of the questions you may want to ask: What type of work do you do with these companies? Have you prescribed me any drugs that are manufactured by companies you’ve taken payments from? Are there non-drug alternatives that I may want to consider first? Are there less expensive generic alternatives to the drugs you have prescribed? What devices have you used in my care that are manufactured by companies you’ve taken payments from?”
Good questions. We have so many more to ask and to learn about how Big Pharma put profits above all, including in wrecking so many lives. We have much work to do to quell the opioid crisis, help its victims, and ensure a preventable catastrophe like this never occurs again.