Did you see the “60 Minutes” stories or The Washington Post articles about Big Pharma putting profits over the public interest by pushing the sales of highly addictive opioids, including the distribution of these dangerous drugs irresponsibly to corrupt pharmacies and pill mills, and how the Drug Enforcement Agency was pulled back from trying to stop the deaths from the opioid epidemic?
In 2012, officials at the Drug Enforcement Agency headquarters began delaying and blocking enforcement actions, and the number of cases plummeted, according to interviews with five former agency supervisors and internal records as reported in The Washington Post article “The DEA Slowed Enforcement While the Opioid Epidemic Grew Out of Control.”
“Things came to a grinding halt,” Frank Younker, a DEA supervisor in the Cincinnati field office who retired in 2014 after 30 years with the agency, was quoted as saying in the article. “I talked to my fellow supervisors, and we were all frustrated. It was ridiculous. I don’t know how many lives could have been saved if the process was done quicker.”
Large, powerful pharmaceutical corporations such as Purdue Pharma manufacture prescription drugs. The companies rely on middlemen, thousands of distributors, who send billions of doses of opioid pain pills to pharmacists, hospitals, nursing homes, and pain clinics. Some of the distributors are also huge corporations, such as McKesson Pharmaceutical.
When Purdue Pharma introduced OxyContin in 1996, it was aggressively marketed and highly promoted. Sales grew from $48 million in 1996 to almost $1.1 billion in 2000. The high availability of OxyContin correlated with increased abuse, diversion, and addiction, and by 2004 OxyContin had become a leading drug of abuse in the United States, according to the article “The Promotion and Marketing of OxyContin: Commercial Triumphs, Public Health Tragedy.”
The promotion and marketing of OxyContin occurred during a recent trend in the liberalization of the use of opioids in the treatment of pain, particularly for chronic non–cancer-related pain. Purdue pursued an “aggressive” campaign to promote the use of opioids in general and OxyContin in particular.
In 2001, the company spent $200 million for different approaches to market and promote OxyContin. They included national pain-management and speaker-training conferences at resorts, the identification of high prescribers, a lucrative bonus system, an increase in the sales force, and OxyContin promotional items such as fishing hats and plush toys.
A consistent feature in the promotion and marketing of OxyContin was a systematic effort to minimize the risk of addiction in the use of opioids for the treatment of chronic non–cancer-related pain, according to the article which was published in American Journal of Public Health. Purdue claimed that the risk of addiction from OxyContin was extremely small.
Sales escalated from $44 million – 316,000 prescriptions dispensed – in 1996 to a 2001 and 2002 combined sales of nearly $3 billion, more than 14 million prescriptions.
Drug abusers learned how to crush the controlled-release tablet and swallow, inhale, or inject the opioid for an intense morphinelike high. Ninety people die every day in the United States due to opioid addiction.
The power of pharmaceutical companies needs to be curbed. Its promotional materials need to be reviewed, and its marketing practices must to be better regulated. In addition, Congress needs to take action to stop the tremendous influence that the pharmaceutical industry has within its halls. That the drug industry could put pressure on the DEA and stop the prosecution of the bad actors distributing millions of opioids to the streets of our nation is unconscionable.
Then, there’s the corporate culture of the pharmaceutical companies. It’s all about making money – as much money as possible – rather than the health of the American public. No longer are the companies groups of scientists who are interested in helping people have healthier lives.
I’ve written dozens of articles about the drug companies being fined for not following the law. The fines, in the millions with some in the billions, are just a slap on the wrist.
Consumers need to band together and fight the corporate power of the pharmaceutical industry. They must get lawmakers to stop these companies from continuing to have devastating effects on the health of all Americans.