Licensed narco cartels: Big pharma and America’s opioid abuse epidemic

Big pharma greed
Anne Farron writes: 

The USA has a serious, serious problem with prescription medicines. Ostensibly used to help the suffering, Americans have come to view pills as a quick-fix solution to every little problem.

The American attitude is that no ailment or ache, however minor, should simply be lived through – it should be chemically eradicated with immediate effect. The American who is content to let their body deal naturally with a sniffle or a headache is rare indeed.

This attitude is in no small measure manufactured by America’s profit-based health-care system, which encourages the sale of drugs and medicines like any other consumer product. As a consequence, Americans take an astonishing amount of medicines, many of which they or their doctors have been erroneously convinced that they need by clever advertising and corporate insistence.

The drug consumption of America dwarfs that of any other nation. Those from nations with nationalised, not-for-profit healthcare systems may roll their eyes at such profligate and unnecessary pill-popping – but it’s rarely thought that this aspect of American corporate health culture does much actual harm.

However, as an opioid abuse epidemic sweeps across the nation, some eyes are turning and looking askance at big pharma.

Opioid addiction epidemic

Over the last two and a half decades, deaths due to opioid overdose have more than tripled in the United States. The vast majority of opioid overdose deaths are due to prescription painkillers, which in the USA frequently contain powerfully addictive opioids.

American annual deaths due to painkiller abuse exceed deaths due to heroin and cocaine combined – yet still the American public seem strangely oblivious to the danger in their midst.

… a great many heroin addicts found their way to the drug through misuse of prescribed painkillers

The “war on drugs” is wreaking havoc with America’s prison system and race relations, yet the authorities remain curiously recalcitrant on the prescription drugs issue, despite the fact that prescription opioid abuse is a far greater danger to the American public.

Indeed, it’s been noted on more than one occasion that a great many heroin addicts found their way to the drug through misuse of prescribed painkillers – opioid painkillers have been explicitly described as “gateway” drugs to illegal narcotics, on top of being much more addictive and deadly than their prohibited cousins in their own right.

However, law-enforcement bodies such as America’s Food and Drug Administration (FDA) seem to be paying only lip service to the issue on the one hand, while opening the gates for more and stronger prescription opioids on the other.

America’s love of painkillers

The simple fact of the matter is that Americans are more likely to take opioids in their lifetime than people of almost any other nation – and the opioids they take will probably be prescribed for them by doctors.

The entire ethos of pain management has changed within America over the past decade or so. Ailments which would once (and still are elsewhere in the world) have been managed with non-addictive painkillers, or even which patients would simply have put up with, are now kept at bay with incredibly addictive opioid analgesics.

Prominent doctors and scientists have pointed out that the painkillers routinely prescribed for relatively minor conditions are far, far stronger than is needed need – stronger even than street-grade heroin – yet still powerfully addictive narcotics like Vicodin are prescribed for conditions which in other countries would be treated with perfect success through the use of non-addictive drugs.

When ludicrously addictive drugs are dispensed like candy, it’s perhaps little wonder that people become addicted.

How did this happen?

The benefits of a captive population addicted to your product are obvious for any company. While it might be cynical to state that big pharmaceutical companies are deliberately encouraging the use of addictive painkillers in the hope of upping profits, and palming responsibility for the thousands of overdose deaths from those same painkillers onto doctors and patients, some people are certainly starting to believe that this is the case.

It’s been noted several times that aggressive marketing on the part of pharmaceutical companies has been more than a little responsible for high-strength, ultra-addictive opioids, which would once have been used only for end-stage terminal patients and the like, are being offered to people with back ache and migraines. Some authorities are even beginning to level accusatory fingers at pharmaceutical companies.

The city of Chicago, for example, filed a lawsuit last year against five pharmaceutical companies. Chicago claims that these companies deliberately and deceptively pushed certain opioid painkillers, including the infamous OxyContin, despite knowing that these drugs were ineffective in the role for which they were marketed. Further, Mayor Emanuel drew an explicit link between the deceptive actions of these drug companies and the devastation wrought upon Chicago’s population by opioid addiction.

Nor is Chicago the first American region to take such action. Two counties in California paved the way earlier in the same month that the Chicago lawsuit was filed.

In order to demonstrate that it is not completely ineffective in this case, the FDA has ordered that warnings on pill labels be strengthened, approved injectable naloxone (a drug which can save the lives of those who overdose on opioids), and tightened restrictions on drugs like Vicodin.

However, the fact that on the same day that it announced the latter measure it approved the use of Zohydro – a hydrocone bitartrate with five times the potential for abuse of OxyContin – despite the objections of numerous medical professionals, including those on its own advisory committee, seems to demonstrate that there is a more entrenched issue at work here.

It seems likely that this issue will only be solved when the US health system stops putting profit before people.

Anne Farron is a freelance writer.


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