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Make Big Pharma Pay for the Opioid Crisis

Photo by Maryland GovPics | CC by 2.0

Big Pharma is the culprit for the opioid crisis we have today.  This is about crime in the suites.   Big Pharma is the biggest legal drug pusher. The 2017 ranking of just the top 10 U.S. biotech and pharmaceutical companies equals $321 billion, based on revenue, according to a current Financial Times equity screener database. Drug overdoses, primarily from opioids are now the leading cause of death for Americans under age 50.  In 2016, drug overdoses killed more people than guns or car accidents.

Government grants (mostly from the National Science Foundation) to university laboratories do the basic science to explore the causes of disease, which is essential before a cure can be investigated.  Big Pharma then cherry picks the most promising prospects into their corporate labs to find a formula that will work to treat the disease.  After they make progress through clinical trials, they apply to the FDA for approval. Then the highly sophisticated advertising begins. Mostly beautiful, young and fashionably dressed pharma reps are the drug pushers.  They  seduce doctors and their staff in their offices with free lunches and free samples (like street pushers do to hook addicts) and whisk doctors to exotic, tropical locations for “seminars.”

The “Mad Men” phenomenon of present-day drug advertising is also seductive.  The actors in the ads are mostly white and middle to upper class.  They live in beautiful, big homes. The long list of adverse drug reactions (ADRs) are recited generally while we watch the actors play tennis, pet their dogs, play with their grandchildren, run through fields of daisies or swim in crystal clear water in slow motion.   Middle-to-upper class Americans with generous company-sponsored health insurance pay very little for a wide variety of drugs.  “Other” people, unable to pay for legal medicines, turn to the streets to alleviate the painful symptoms of diseases they suffer with. And where do their “prescribers” end up?  Mass incarceration of mostly people of color is the answer to that question.

Some members of Congress are now pushing for government funding of opioid treatment centers.  NO!  Make Big Pharma pay!  People who were damaged by legal drugs used to seek trial lawyers to bring product liability lawsuits for damages but the enormous political power of corporate lobbyists now diminishes the ability of citizens to do that.  Furthermore, individual lawsuits take years to work their way through the courts before cases take on class action status.  I experienced this during the 1970s in the now infamous case of the damages done to hundreds of thousands of women who, like me, fell for the pharma advertising that claimed the Dalkon Shield IUD contraceptive was 100% safe and effective. Users experienced a variety of pelvic diseases, perforated uteruses, hemorrhaging, hysterectomy, infertility, and even death. After more than ten years of suffering and mounting lawsuits, this case of egregious corporate crime was exposed.  A large trust fund was eventually set up in 1999, almost 20 years after the damages took place.

Big Tobacco used deceptive advertising back in the day for getting people hooked on smoking. Some of the ads used actors dressed in a doctor’s white coat claiming that menthol cigarettes actually “soothed” the throat!  After decades, Big Tobacco finally made multiple million dollar payouts to many state health departments to help with healthcare needs.

Big Pharma must pay for its sins and take responsibility for this epidemic.  They must set up treatment centers and pay for rehabilitation of the unknowing patients who got hooked (or who had generous supplies of them in their medicine cabinets where teens could get easy access to them).  The medical need for pain relief after major surgeries is essential.  But were doctors ever instructed by Pharma to tell their patients that they must be weaned off the opioids slowly?  Or did they keep writing endless prescriptions once their patients get hooked because the risks were trivialized by Big Pharma?

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Karen Hicks is a retired adjunct professor at Lehigh University and the author of Surviving the Dalkon Shield IUD:  Women vs. the Pharmaceutical Industry.  She organized women from all over the country to fight the A.H. Robbins company (now defunct) that for years suppressed the critical information that could have spared women of these medical tragedies.

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