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Taxpayer Alert: We Will Pay For Pharma’s Opioid Prescription Spree

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By now, the contours of Pharma’s opioid prescription scam have emerged. Between 1996 and 2002, Purdue Pharma, who makes OxyContin, funded more than 20,000 pain-related “educational” programs reports Vox Media and “launched a multifaceted campaign to encourage long-term use of [opioid painkillers] for chronic non-cancer pain.”  It gave money to groups like the American Pain Society, the American Academy of Pain Medicine, the Federation of State Medical Boards and “grassroots” patient groups to advocate “for more aggressive identification and treatment of pain,” says Vox.

According to 2013 lawsuits filed by Chicago and California counties, the opioid makers Johnson & Johnson, Purdue, Teva, Endo Health and Actavis misled the public about opioid addiction and safety, paid doctors to extol pro-opioid opinions and created faux “patient” groups to signal the great demand for opioids.

Pharma-paid doctors actually changed pain guidelines to favor opioids. The American Geriatrics Society recommended opioids for “all patients with moderate to severe pain,” and said that opioids should be used before over-the-counter pain relievers, such as ibuprofen and naproxen. A pain guide supported by the Society along with opioid maker Janssen/ Johnson & Johnson says opioids “allow people with chronic pain to get back to work, run, and play sports,” and addiction fears are a “myth.” One hundred and twenty five people are now dying a day from opioids, according to the New York Times–not quite a myth.

During Pharma’s opioid spree, the drugs were recommended for every possible affliction from headaches and lower back pain to non-pain conditions like depression, divorce and boredom, reported Bloomberg.

IMMPACT, a Pharma-funded lobbying group even privately met with federal regulators to facilitate new opioid approvals and regulators complied, playing both sides of the street. On the same day in 2013 the FDA announced Vicodin restrictions, it approved the opioid Zohydro. The next year, it approved the opioid Tarrginiq ER and the next year it approved opioids for children as young as 11. Nice.

The Government Will Act–With Your Money

As opioid addiction looms as one of the biggest preventable health crises of all time, the government is ready to act–with your money. Taxpayers may pay as much as $1.1 billion to address the opioid/heroin use epidemic that Pharma caused–with Pharma paying nothing. The tobacco industry agreed to pay for the costs of smoking-related illnesses in perpetuity why should Pharma be off the hook? Purdue alone made $31 billion on opioids reported the Los Angeles Times.

And it gets worse. Pharma will also profit from taxpayer-funded opioid “treatment” because it has marketed its drug buprenorpine (Suboxone) as the preferred treatment for opioid addiction–in what it has sold as medication-assisted treatment (MAT). While people were worrying about opioids, Pharma was creating and endowing “addiction medicine” groups to make sure more drugs were the answer to drug addiction. For example, at least six board of directors at the American Academy of Addiction Psychiatry (AAAP) have financial links to Pharma companies–three actually serving on Pharma speaker boards. No conflict of interest there!

Like pro-opioid and other “patient groups” set up by Pharma, there is even a “grassroots” group promoting MAT and buprenorphine/Suboxone. Its purpose is to “Educate the public about the disease of opioid addiction and the buprenorphine treatment option; help reduce the stigma and discrimination associated with patients with addiction disorders; and serve as a conduit connecting patients in need of treatment to buprenorphine treatment providers.” It admits that it receives “donations from pharmaceutical companies.”

MAT for opioid addiction is a lucrative new franchise clearly and unethically playing both sides of the pharmaceutical street. Its mendacity is increased by the fact that buprenorphine/Suboxone can be as addictive and difficult to quit as the opioids themselves–even providing its own high. Thanks for nothing, Pharma.

Irony upon Irony

There are more ironies in the government’s bestowing our tax dollars on Pharma to cure addictions Pharma caused with more Pharma drugs. The biggest opponents of tighter opioid regulation are the addicted patients themselves who have drunk the Pharma Kool-Aid. Rather than blaming Pharma for their addictions, they blame regulators and reporters who expose Pharma’s opioids-for-everyone scam. They are not “addicted” they yell–they are “habituated” and “dependent” and can quit anytime. (Of course–addiction is generally defined by withdrawal symptoms which they haven’t had.)

Last week even Pharma giant Pfizer admitted opioids are addictive to which pro-opioid patients actually responded–what does Pharma know? Opioids are safe and non-addictive they claim–sticking to their story.

Opioids, in addition to deaths and overdoses, cause cardiopulmonary and congestive heart problems, sleep apnea, hormonal changes, constipation, decreased immune responses, liver and kidney risks, fracture risks, a distinctive “croaky” voice, lassitude and mental problems. Users’ lives usually become small–revolving around the drugs they aren’t addicted to.

As Pharma cashes in on drugs to treat addictions it causes, the FDA approves new opioids while warning about others and unhealthy, addicted patients yell the problem is too much regulation, taxpayers are paying for the whole opioid mess.

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Martha Rosenberg is an investigative health reporter. She is the author of  Born With A Junk Food Deficiency: How Flaks, Quacks and Hacks Pimp The Public Health (Prometheus).

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