Economy

Bottomless Big Pharma Greed Drives Heroin and Opiate Addiction Across America

Putting profits ahead of public health yet again.

Photo Credit: Image by Shutterstock, Copyright (c) Artem Furman

In October 2015, residents of New Hampshire ranked drug abuse as the most important issue in the 2016 presidential campaign. They ranked it as more important than jobs and the economy.

Politicians are listening and this has become a topic in the 2016 elections. Senator Bernie Sanders of Vermont (one of the hardest hit states) has stated that addiction is "a disease, not a criminal activity" and called for a radical change in our country's approach to the epidemic. Hillary Clinton has pledged to spend $10 billion to combat drug addiction, with much of it focused on federal-state partnerships for treatment programs. On the Republican side, Jeb Bush has released a comprehensive drug policy plan and he and the other candidates have made a compassionate approach towards addiction a part of their rhetoric.

No one can ignore the epidemic that is raging across the country. The death toll from heroin and opioid overdose has grown at a staggering rate in the last 15 years, as illustrated in a Wall Street Journal graph.

The truth is that this rising death toll is not a coincidence or an unavoidable tragedy. It is a consequence of the pharmaceutical industry using ever more aggressive tactics to push doctors to prescribe high-level opioids for all manner of complaints, even minor aches and pains for which they are clearly unnecessary. A 2003 GAO report found that Purdue Pharma gave doctors 34,000 coupons for free OxyContin prescriptions, as well as OxyContin "fishing hats, stuffed plush toys, coffee mugs with heat activated messages, music compact discs, [and] luggage tags." These campaigns worked exactly as planned -- usage of OxyContin and other painkillers went way up. In 1991, Americans were issued 76 million prescriptions for opioids. By 2013, that number had nearly tripled to 207 million.

The pharmaceutical industry's push for reckless pill popping has had tragic consequences for millions of American families. Many of the patients prescribed OxyContin and similar pills have ended up dependent on and ultimately addicted to the drugs. If their doctors eventually cut them off, they too often find a cheaper alternative -- heroin. This is a common story, and in fact, four out of five heroin addicts were first addicted to opioids. Mexican drug cartels capitalized on the opportunity by heavily targeting heroin to areas of the country with the highest rates of opium prescription and addiction. But it is the American drug cartels -- some of them doing business as Purdue Pharma, Johnson & Johnson, and Endo Pharmaceuticals -- that bear ultimate responsibility for the opiate epidemic.

Those fighting the epidemic already understand the destructive consequences of pharmaceutical companies' greed. But, any attempt to rein in the prescribing of their dangerously over-prescribed painkillers is met with a fierce astroturf resistance. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention was planning to issue new guidelines for doctors on when to prescribe opioids at the beginning of this year. These guidelines, which advise doctors to prescribe opioid painkillers only for the most intense pain, would not have placed any legal restrictions on pharmaceutical companies or physicians. But even the prospect of advisory guidelines was too much of a risk against their profits, according to pharmaceutical companies. The fake "consumer" groups that they fund insisted that the guidelines would make it too difficult for patients to get their drugs. And, for now, they have succeeded in keeping the CDC from implementing them.

Pharmaceutical companies have good reason to be afraid of Americans learning the truth about their destructive and corrupt opioid marketing campaigns. The Sackler family, which owns Purdue Pharma, is the 16th richest family in the country, with a massive $14 billion fortune - a fortune that was largely built by pushing masses of OxyContin into doctors' offices and hospitals around the country. Pharmaceutical companies put profits before public health and the result is billions for them and broken lives, drug addiction and death for the American people.

The people are fighting back, and the tide is finally beginning to turn against PhRMA. In his recent State of the State address, Governor Peter Shumlin of Vermont stated that Oxycontin "lit the match that ignited America's opiate and heroin crisis" and called for a limit in the number of pills that can be included in a prescription. Elected officials are increasingly willing to speak out because they know that public opinion will be on their side.

We need to rein in reckless drug company greed--drug prices for everyone continue to go up year over year by around 10%, commercials for drugs pollute every channel of media, and companies continue to restrict access to life-saving drugs by pricing them out of reach from those who need them.

This is the year to tell the drug industry enough--stand with us as we push for reasonable regulation of drug companies and end out-of-control drug price increases. You can sign up to be part of the resistance here.

 

Alex Lawson is the executive director of Social Security Works, part of the Strengthen Social Security Coalition, which is made up of over 320 national and state organizations representing 50 million Americans.

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