The United States is in the midst of the worst drug addiction epidemic in its history. But it is not a crisis of illegal drugs, it is one of prescription painkillers. Behind the recent flurry of headlines about a massive surge in heroin use is a much more widespread wave of addiction to legal opioids — OxyContin, Vicodin and other painkillers.

One recent study found that 4 in 5 heroin users previously abused prescription opioids. In the last 15 years, at least 100,000 people have died from prescription opioid abuse.

US Tops Opioid Abuse

The US consumes more than 80 percent of the global supply of opioids, and overdoses from prescription opioid drugs kill nearly 17,000 Americans every year, which is one overdose death every 30 minutes.

As the painkiller epidemic has spread, drug company profits from opioids have soared. Over the last 10 years, revenues from opioid painkillers have more than doubled; in 2012 the figure was more than $9bn.

Big Pharma

And as the market has grown, so has the incentive to get more and more lucrative drugs approved by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA).

Dr Andrew Kolodny is an addiction specialist who advocates for reform in opioid drug policy. He says: “They launched a marketing campaign and an educational campaign to convince the medical community that we had been underprescribing opioids. To convince us that we had been allowing patients to suffer needlessly because of what they called an overblown fear of addiction.”

The FDA approved a powerful, new painkiller called Zohydro, a pure form of hydrocodone that contains five to 10 times the opiate level of Vicodin. The FDA approved Zohydro even though its own advisory committee voted 11 to 2 against approval, citing the drug’s potential to exacerbate the opioid abuse epidemic.

Drug Policy Privileges Some

So why did the FDA approve Zohydro in the midst of the worst crisis of prescription drug addiction and overdoses in US history? Fault Lines examines the opioid epidemic in the U.S., and asks whether federal drug policy privileges Big Pharma’s bottom line over larger concerns of public health.

Read more at Fault Lines here.