TV News Has an Ugly Role in the Pharma Epidemic That Has Killed 200,000 Americans

Personal Health

Over the two years covered in the explosive 60 Minutes/Washington Post joint-investigation “Ex-DEA Agent: Opioid Crisis Fueled by Drug Industry and Congress,” there was no coverage by any major TV news outlets of the four versions of the bill or its final signature by President Obama.

In a year of depressing stories emanating from Washington, the sheer scope of DC culpability in a scandal that helped fuel the greatest drug epidemic in American history is stunning. As Big Pharma and Congress moved four versions of the Ensuring Patient Access and Effective Drug Enforcement Act forward, from the first House version in February 2014 to Obama’s signature of the fourth and final version in April 2016, TV news media was silent. There were no stories on the actual negotiations, on Big Pharma’s role in creating the crisis, or the lobbyist rationale for defanging the DEA.  

President Obama signed the legislation quietly behind closed doors, a clear red flag in Washington. Attorney General Loretta Lynch and pharma-pliant DEA Chuck Rosenberg played along and both houses of Congress approved the final versions with unanimous consent. Big Pharma and its army of lobbyists made a full-court press over many years and their efforts were rewarded handsomely. According to the Washington Post "John Mulrooney, the chief DEA administrative law judge, has been documenting the falling number of immediate suspension orders against doctors, pharmacies and drug companies. That number has dropped from 65 in fiscal year 2011 to six so far this fiscal year, according to the DEA. Not a single order has targeted a distributor or manufacturer since late 2015.”

All of them have blood on their hands.  

The final versions of the bill were approved in the House and Senate with unanimous consent. There is little daylight between the Democratic and Republican parties when it comes to Big Pharma, which contributes to the campaigns of candidates on both sides of the aisle. When the Ensuring Patient Access and Effective Drug Enforcement Act was being negotiated from 2014 to 2016, there was ample documentation available to Congress members on the drug industry fueling opioid addiction.

As reported in excruciating detail in “The Family that Built an Empire of Pain,” Patrick Radden Keefe’s recent New Yorker article chronicling Purdue Pharma and the founding Sackler family, Purdue senior executives were convicted and heavy fines were paid as far back as 2006. OxyContin and other opioid-based pharmaceuticals fueled the staggering growth in pain medication sales and abuse, behind one of the most aggressive marketing efforts in pharmaceutical history. The link between prescribing opioid painkillers and the opioid crisis was undeniable. And everyone in Washington knows it.  

When they do report on drugs, TV news media spend more time on Prince and celebrity deaths than on drug policy that affects millions. More time on state marijuana laws than far more deadly federal opioid-prescription legislation. More time discussing how El Chapo escaped from prison than how to put devious prescription distributors and pharmaceutical drug-dealers behind bars. More time on how to clean up the mess than on how to stop the flow. And with drug commercials a mainstay of TV broadcast and cable news programming, it is easy to understand why the topic rarely surfaces.

Andrew Tyndall, who tracks ABC, NBC and CBS Evening News programs on Tyndall, kindly provided search results for his narcotics category and returned 149 stories on the three networks from Feb. 1, 2014, to May 1, 2016.

Many stories each on Bill Cosby, El Chapo, Philip Seymour Hoffman and Prince; many gut-wrenching tales of addicts, families, first responders, communities, courts and police battling the epidemic. And a whole bunch of stories on medical marijuana and pot legalization. But not one story on pharmaceutical drug policies or laws enacted at the root of the opioid crisis.

Except one—ironically, a Feb. 27, 2014, NBC News story on FDA approval of a new painkiller, Zohydro ER, which is five to 10 times more powerful than hydrocodone. Senior-level FDA officials during the Obama administration approved the painkiller over the FDA’s Advisory Board recommendations, which are normally followed.

The Ensuring Patient Access and Effective Drug Enforcement Act went through many versions over a two-year period, and there were ample opportunities for TV news to report and investigate. The House passed a first version on Feb. 18, 2014; a second version passed on July 29 and was opposed in a press release by then Attorney General Eric Holder.

I was unable to find TV news coverage of any versions of the legislation on the major network evening news programs and cable news channels during the two-year period the bill was negotiated by Congress.

A third version, H.R. 471, passed the House via unanimous consent in April 2015, and a Senate version sponsored by Senator Orrin Hatch, R-I, S 483, passed with unanimous consent in March 2016. In quick succession, the House approved the Senate version and President Obama signed it into law on April 19, 2016. TV news was nowhere to be found.

CNN found time to cover DEA prostitute parties, Lindsay Lohan, Philip Seymour Hoffman and even Randy Quaid, but no coverage of laws or drug policy that might actually stem the epidemic. MSNBC had 41 stories with “prescription drugs” in the transcripts on their core evening programs, but also failed to cover any of versions of the scandalous bill.

There was a big raid by the DEA in May 2015, with the arrest of 48 doctors in four southern states illustrating the excesses in the delivery chain of prescription drugs. But our TV news organizations rarely investigate or dig into the weeds of slow-moving legislation, and the bill moved forward under the TV news radar.  

I watched an ABC 20/20 program broadcast during the bill's gestation called “Breaking Point: Heroin in America.” It follows a common drug documentary pattern, focusing on heart-wrenching stories of addicts, desperate families, exhausted police forces and treatment facilities under siege. The focus was on the opioid “fire” and the victims and first responders, not the prescription “fuel” supply driving the epidemic or how to stop it.

Another documentary during this period, “Chasing Heroin,” a two-hour Frontline documentary, written and directed by Marcela Gaviria, was far more pointed in describing how the epidemic began as a result of Big Pharma. The doc solidly describes how Perdue convinced the FDA to allow Oxycontin to claim it “might be less addicting.” After this lie was revealed, Perdue paid $600 million and revised the product with new “abuse-deterrent properties." But the rest of the documentary never returned to Big Pharma or efforts to reduce the supply.

As of this writing, the only change since the explosive 60 Minutes/Washington Post investigative report was that Rep. Tom Marino (R-Pa.), who sponsored the bill, has removed his name from consideration for drug czar. We will see if other sponsors of the legislation suffer at the polls, or whether an effort to remove the law will garner any support.

TV news continues to focus on the heartbreaking individual stories of addiction, the damage opioids have wreaked on our communities, and how doctors, clinics, courts, police and first responders are dealing with the crisis. While well-intentioned, their failure to confront the root causes—Big Pharma, its lobbyists and the laws that enable them—will doom us to a continuing cycle of misery. We need Big News to step up and do more. It’s the crisis in our backyards. There will be no solution until we curtail and rethink the pharmaceutical pipeline.  

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