Is Big Pharma to Blame for a Generation of Addicts?
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Is Big Pharma to Blame for a Generation of Addicts?


The country’s abuzz with news about our opiate epidemic. We’ve got too many kids getting hooked on painkillers and too many heroin addicts dying from overdoses. In fact, the problem is so egregious it’s getting some attention on the 2016 presidential campaign trail.

Given the tragedy of it all, many people are playing the blame game, accusing pharmaceutical companies of creating the two million opiate addicts in the US today.

Telling it Like it Is?

In a recent op-ed in the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, Phil Bauer pointed the finger at those who dish out the drugsand, no, he wasn’t referring to El Chapo, the Mexican druglord who’s built over 100 tunnels to smuggle drugs across the US border, or other cartel leaders. Instead, he blames the  multi-billion dollar pharmaceutical companies that produce opiate painkillers like Oxy and Percocet.

“The pharmaceutical industry is largely responsible for causing this epidemicand for continuing to fuel this public health crisis,” Bauer wrote. “Their corporate crimes and unethical marketing practices have devastated families and communities throughout our country.”

Not Just a Conspiracy Theory

Bauer does have a point. The first year OxyContin hit the market in 1996, it generated $4 million in sales for Purdue Pharma. By 2010, the company had amassed $3.1 billion off Oxy, accounting for 30% of the painkiller market.

Many people who got addicted to Oxy ended up with a heroin problem. According to a recent study, four out of five first-time heroin users used opiate painkillers before they moved on to heroin. As the price of heroin has plummetedit’s now just one-fifth of the cost of prescription painkillersmore and more people have become heroin addicts.

The critics of Big Pharma aren’t only upset about the addictive nature of painkillersthey’re pissed because many of the drug makers put users at risk by not being honest with doctors about the risk of addiction when marketing their drugs.

“[C]rimes include marketing drugs for off-label uses, misrepresentation of research results, hiding data about risks, Medicare and Medicaid fraud and payments to prescribers and public policymakers,” says Bauer.

In 2007, Purdue Pharma paid $600 million in fines after pleading guilty to federal charges of misbranding Oxy as nonaddictive. 

Foul Play?

It’s easy to put the blame for our opiate epidemic on the pharmaceutical industry. But at the end of the day, this is a very complex problem.

Despite the questionable, and at times criminal, marketing practices of Big Pharma, these drugs were originally developed for a reason—to alleviate the excruciating physical pain, and  accompanying psychological distress, of cancer patients.

Thankfully, California’s been cracking down on rogue docs and many drug companies are engineering abuse-resistant opioid painkillers. Indeed, there’s been a recent drop in lethal overdoses, partly due to a new version of Oxy that’s more resistant to abuse since it can’t be crushed or dissolved (and subsequently snorted or injected).

Just this month, the Centers for Disease Control said, “Recent declines in overdose deaths indicate that safe prescribing practices, state policies, and prescription drug monitoring programs can save lives.”

It’s easy to point fingers over a problem as devastating as drug addiction, which often results in death by overdose, but putting the onus on Big Pharma isn’t necessarily the best approach. The best way to end the epidemic is to keep the conversation open on all sides and hold everyone, including Big Pharma, doctors and patients, accountable.

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About Author

Tracy Chabala is a freelance writer for many publications including the LA Times, LA Weekly, Smashd, VICE and Salon. She writes mostly about food, technology and culture, in addition to addiction and mental health. She holds a Master's in Professional Writing from USC and is finishing up her novel.