The Opioid Epidemic (A)

By Ken Shotts, Sheila Melvin
2019 | Case No. ETH18A | Length 13 pgs.

This case provides an overview of the history and causes of the U.S. opioid epidemic. It begins with a history of opium and pain management, leading into a description of the current epidemic, its stages, and its scale. The case then presents possible causes of the epidemic: misleading marketing by drug companies, kickback schemes, irresponsible physicians and distributors, lobbying, and societal expectations about eliminating pain.

Learning Objective

The case is designed for use in classes on business ethics or business & society.

It can be used to discuss the social responsibility of business. If a drug company can make a lot of money by selling large quantities of opioids (and get away with it), should it do so, knowing that this will contribute to addiction and deaths of patients? And is it acceptable for companies to lobby against regulation of practices that may be harmful to patients?

The case also links to philosophical and normative ethics. It can be used for utilitarian analysis of approaches that drug companies could take, weighing benefits like effective pain management against harms like addiction. It also can be used to engage with Kantian ethics regarding deception (false claims that opioids did not cause addiction) and using patients as a means to profits.

Note: philosophy isn’t mentioned in the case. Rather, the case is set up to provoke discussions where students raise concerns that relate to the philosophical arguments.

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