To the relief of families who have lost loved ones to the opioid epidemic, the Trump Administration is finally addressing the crisis. In late March, President Trump introduced the three strategies he’ll use to curb drug abuse in the U.S.: increasing access to the overdose antidote, naloxone, increasing medication-assisted treatment (MAT), and rolling out a new advertising campaign to convince kids not to try drugs in the first place. He’s also declared that building a wall on the southern US border will prevent illegal immigrants, and therefore heroin, from entering the country. Finally, most controversially, Trump has suggested he wants to give drug dealers the death penalty, following in the footsteps of Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte. While increasing the availability of naloxone and MAT will certainly provide much-needed support for Americans struggling with opioid dependence, our President’s perspective is unfortunately misinformed. While he focuses his attention on street drug dealers, the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration reports 11.5 of the 11.8 million Americans who misused opioids in 2016 were misusing prescription opioids, not illegal drugs like heroin.
Thus, if we really want to punish those who have popularized opioid misuse, it’s time we hold America’s guiltiest drug peddlers accountable: Big pharma corporations. Manufacturers including Purdue Pharma, AmerisourceBergen, and McKesson aren’t only guilty – they’ve collected enormous profits from the patients now dependent on their products.
Purdue Pharma, the company that created OxyContin, swayed doctors wary of the drug’s side effects with lavish trips to pain-management seminars. Today, the drug accounts for 82% of Purdue’s sales, and in 2017 the company made $1.7 billion from OxyContin sales alone. Lawmakers have taken notice, and in late 2017, attorneys general from 41 states subpoenaed records from Purdue and other major opioid manufacturers. Lawsuits against the company have also been building, pressuring Purdue to make moves to repair its image. So in December 2017, Purdue rolled out a radio campaign warning of the dangers of opioid misuse, as well as a new medicine to treat constipation that accompanies opioid use, claiming the opioid crisis “is our fight, too”. But these promises are empty, notes Mike Moore, an attorney consulting on the cases against Purdue. While Purdue has offered a few million dollars through these new efforts, he believes any global settlement with manufacturers would need to be at least $100 billion to seriously address the crisis. By any measure, a few million dollars is inadequate to repair the damage the company has done. A recent U.S. Senate investigation found Purdue gave $4.15 million in funding to patient advocacy groups in return for issued statements that minimized the risk of OxyContin, rather than warning of it. These strategies are why Sue Kruczek blames the company for her son Nick’s opioid overdose in 2013. When she heard the company’s radio ads promising to stop promoting its drugs to doctors, she was completely appalled. Ultimately, the company is still trying to sell as much OxyContin as possible, making it implicit in the recent rise in overdoses.
Then, there’s Insys Therapeutics, one of the nation’s top producers of the potent opioid fentanyl. In December, six executives from the company were arrested by the FBI for fraud and kickbacks. They were charged with conducting these questionable practices in order to sell “a highly potent and addictive opioid that can lead to life-threatening respiratory depression”. An investigation found Insys bribed doctors to prescribe their fentanyl spray product Subsys, which was intended for cancer patients, but has been largely prescribed to patients that didn’t need it at all. This kickback scheme undoubtedly contributed to fentanyl’s rise, and in 2016, fentanyl caused more deaths than heroin. So if President Trump is serious about tackling the cause of overdose deaths, perhaps he should focus less attention on executing heroin dealers and more attention on Insys, which is still developing new products and finished 2017 with a $164 million cash balance.
It is clear – while the losers of the opioid epidemic are the American people, the winners are the billionaires working in Big Pharma. One state has recognized this, and has a real plan to force corporations to pay for the crisis they’ve created. Arkansas has been hit especially hard by the opioid crisis – the state ranks first in the U.S. for children ages 12 to 17 misusing painkillers and is running out of resources, including space in county jails. A lawsuit filed in March represents all 75 counties in Arkansas, and alleges opioid manufacturers falsely marketed these drugs, leading to lost lives and tax dollars. It names 52 different opioid manufacturers, including Purdue Pharma and Johnson & Johnson, along with distributors, doctors, pharmacists, and retailers, in the hopes that an Arkansas jury will determine the amount the manufacturers should have to pay. This settlement would then pay for badly-needed treatment programs, drug courts, and mental health clinics across the state. Other states should take note, because tackling our nation’s overdose problem will be an expensive process. Forcing Big Pharma to foot the bill is our best option – and they can certainly afford it.