Prescription-narcotic misuse began to climb in the mid-1990s, fueled in part by oxycodone (the active ingredient in OxyContin and other drugs). Traditionally, opioids had been prescribed mostly by oncologists and pain doctors. But OxyContin was marketed by its makers, Purdue Pharma, to physicians as being less prone to abuse and less likely to cause addiction. (The company and three executives pleaded guilty in May 2007 to overselling the drug's safety and were fined more than $630 million.)
Narcotic fears come in cycles
The OxyContin crackdown tightened supply and raised awareness of prescription-drug abuse, but Roger Chou, MD, associate professor of medicine at Oregon Health and Science University, takes the long view. Narcotic use has swung back and forth over the decades.