On the 27th of June, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) hosted an Online Opioid Summit to discuss the impact of the digital marketplace on the real-world issue of drug abuse in America. According to earlier reports, the summit was meant to encourage tech officials to collaborate on new initiatives that would take stronger action when it comes to illegal opioids being marketed online. With opioid addiction being such a huge issue today, more effort is being put into stopping the spread of prescription drugs.
However, the summit eventually stirred up a bit on controversy. On one side, the tech companies believe the pharmaceutical companies should be held accountable for the opioid crisis. Meanwhile, the pharmaceutical companies pointed to the tech industry as being more responsible.
So while the hope was to use this summit as an opportunity to bring people together, it still created a new version of the opioid blame game. Should the tech industry really be taking more of the blame?
Tech Leaders in Washington
The summit was organized to bring together leaders in the tech industry, along with academic researchers and advocacy groups. Part of the big draw included representatives from Silicon Valley and social media empires, such as:
The Online Opioid Summit also welcomed lobbyists and government officials to participate in the discussion. The involvement of the tech industry in the opioid crisis has been brought up a lot these past few months in Washington, D.C., including:
- The testimony of Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg to Congress months ago
- At the National Rx Drug Abuse and Heroin Summit in April, FDA commissioner Scott Gottlieb said that the tech industry had not done enough when it came to getting rid of illegal drug sales and marketing online.
- When the FDA sent letters to nine companies, which are responsible for operating 53 online pharmacies, and instructed them to cease the marketing of opioids.
Initially, the FDA’s invitation for the summit suggested the FDA planned to ask tech companies, such as Google and other social media giants, to sign what it called a “Pledge to Reduce the Availability of Illicit Opioids Online.” Had this plan gone through, the pledge would have been published 30 days after the summit.
Tech Industry Pushing Back
However, the FDA decided not to follow through with the plan after speaking at length with tech industry leaders. This may be because the tech companies are pushing back against the claims that they should be held more accountable to the illicit sale of opioids online.
One day before the summit the Internet Association held a call with reporters prior to the summit. For those who aren’t aware, the Internet Association represents various tech industry interests, such as:
A representative from the Internet Association reportedly cited research by the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA). The studies they point out state that most people misusing opioids get them from non-online sources.
And even when you do consider the online sale of opioids, reports indicate that either:
- Most illegal online opioid sales are happening on the dark web.
- Some “open” websites claim to sell opioids but actually do not. They actually steal people’s information.
Needless to say, the tech industry is not willing to let the burden on blame rest on their shoulders. However, some still say that does not mean they are unwilling to take steps.
Tech Taking Small Steps on Opioids
In order to eliminate opioid sales online, some of the biggest names in the tech industry are taking steps, even small ones. For example:
Google implemented a special tool on its homepage back in April to help promote the DEA’s Drug Take-Back Day.
This social media cornerstone is redirecting users who are trying to buy opioids on the platform to a help hotline.
As a part of the bigger Facebook family, the photo-sharing app Instagram now monitors hashtags that relate to opioids.
An official from the Internet Association states that many of the trade group’s members:
“-have partnered with nonprofits, health groups and the federal government to educate people about the epidemic and prevent it from spreading.”
While it is a start, some are still asking more of the tech industry. Libby Baney, an advisor to the Alliance for Safe Online Pharmacies, tells Wired that beyond the small changes being made, these companies also need to acknowledge the role they have played. Baney states:
“This is a historic opportunity to do more with what we already know is true.”
“If it ends up being us versus them and there’s pointing fingers and a lot of ‘We’re already doing this or that,’ that’s an old-school way of thinking that isn’t responsive to the public health need.”
According to Wired, one FDA spokesperson made statements suggesting that this shouldn’t be labeled a loss,
“We will consolidate the feedback and ideas discussed at the summit and turn it into an actionable plan—not just for those in the room but for all internet stakeholders to join.”
For now, the FDA worries that as other means of obtaining opioids are restricted, the online marketplace will keep growing. Hopefully, the tech industry will continue to work with the FDA and other government agencies to find the most efficient and proactive methods for keeping illegal online pharmacies from exploiting their platforms to distribute dangerous drugs.
Should we hold the tech industry responsible for some of the issues with illegal opioid sales? Should they be doing more to help curb the illegal opioid market? Surely, we cannot blame Facebook or Google for the opioid crisis. But what role can they play in helping slow the spread of drugs?
Furthermore, thing we can do to fight addiction together is to make as many resources for effective addiction treatment more available. Part of overcoming the opioid crisis is getting people who are struggling the help that they need. This means offering medical detox options and holistic treatment programs. The easier for people to find reliable treatment resources, the better chance we all have of making our country safer.