In an effort to curb the over-prescription of opioids, the city of Chicago has licensed nearly 1,500 people as pharmaceutical representatives — people tasked with convincing doctors to prescribe certain drugs — since a city ordinance went into effect last year.
The city ordinance required that anyone working as a pharmaceutical rep in the city for more than 15 days per year must be licensed through the city. Those licenses cost $750 each, and each licensed rep is listed on the city’s online data portal.
“This milestone demonstrates our commitment to protecting residents when it comes to addictive drugs and holding drug representatives accountable if they seek to deceive, mislead or unduly influence the medical community,” Mayor Rahm Emanuel said in a statement.
The licensing protocol is “the country’s toughest regulation on pharmaceutical representatives” to protect city residents from the “predatory marketing of prescription drugs,” according to a statement from the mayor’s office.
More than 200 additional licenses are set to go into effect in the next month, according to city data.
The licensing program has freed up an extra $700,000 per year in opioid addiction treatment services, according to the mayor’s office, with another $500,000 “annual investment” added to those efforts in 2018. In 2015, the city put $250,000 toward equipping first responders with naloxone, an overdose reversal medication.
Marketing practices by pharmaceutical reps have come under fire in recent years as the opioid crisis has gained national attention.
Earlier this year, the city filed a federal lawsuit against three opioid distributors, accusing them of “placing profits over public health” and fueling a public health crisis blamed on “rampant over-prescribing and abuse” of pharmaceutical opioids.
Chicago’s struggle with opioids stands in contrast to national trends, though. In 2016, white people accounted for 78 percent of all opioid-related deaths nationwide. In Chicago, though, African-American deaths represented nearly 50 percent of all opioid deaths. The majority of those, the Sun-Times found, occurred on the West Side.
In 2014, there were 212 opioid-related deaths in Cook County, 129 of them in Chicago, according to the medical examiner’s office. Sixty-seven percent of all deaths were linked to heroin.
By 2017, Cook County had 1,150 opioid deaths, 764 of those in Chicago.
By comparison, Chicago saw 664 homicides in 2017.
Fentanyl, a powerful painkiller that’s legally available through prescription, has factored heavily in the large uptick. It also can easily be manufactured illegally, and typically is mixed by dealers with other illicit, though less deadly, drugs like heroin — often without users knowing they’re taking Fentanyl.