Big Pharma Doctor Payments Tied to Opioid Deaths

The opioid crisis has been a constant in the news lately. Thousands of people all across the country have died from overdoses of a wide variety of opioid painkillers. Individuals become addicted and turn to crime to fuel their addiction. This widespread phenomenon is so complex that politicians and policymakers have had a hard time pinpointing specific causes for the problem. Recent research has suggested that one of these mysterious causes may actually be the marketing arms of pharmaceutical companies. Reining in those companies may help the American people and those affected by chronic pain significantly.


Opioids are a common form of painkiller. They are prescribed to a wide variety of individuals for many different reasons. Opioids may be prescribed to treat conditions that cause chronic pain. They are often passed along as a prescription for the pain associated with numerous surgeries. Opioids help to dull pain and allow an individual temporary relief from the effects of pain.

The problem with opioids is that they are highly addictive. Individuals can easily build up a dependency to these drugs. They continue to take the drugs for so long that the body feels pain and adverse reactions when it is not consuming the opioids. Individuals need to take more and more opioids to feel the same effect. Eventually, this process leads to the potential of overdose. These overdoses have killed a number of celebrities and have hit small, struggling towns especially hard.

Thousands of burglaries and assaults each year have been tied to opioid dependence. The presence of opioids has buoyed the organized crime groups that make money off of them. A black market in loose pills has formed and led to a national health emergency. As a result of many negative studies and headlines, researchers started to look at the moment of prescription and the relationship between doctors, patients, and pharmaceutical companies. They found a shocking correlation.

The doctor connection

The increase in opioid prescriptions has been directly tied to marketing campaigns towards medical professionals. Pharmaceutical companies started to shower medical professionals with donations and payments for speeches and other events. There were rarely bribes paid out to these doctors. Instead, a pharmaceutical executive would hire a doctor as a consultant or invite them to a conference extolling the virtues of the company’s drug. These payments have been tied directly to the opioid crisis. Opioid prescriptions are the desired effect of the marketing dollars that a pharmaceutical company spends on doctors.

A JAMA study tied every increased marketing dollar to increased opioid deaths. While the connection is far from certain, there is a solid theory as to the nature of this connection. Opioid prescriptions were often easy to dole out. They only required that an individual report that they were in pain. In many instances, they could be given to quiet complaining patients.

At the same time, continued use of these prescriptions and of particular brands would lead to more trips and more sponsored actions by pharmaceutical companies. There was a perverse incentive and a conflict of interest influencing the decisions of doctors. Every unnecessary opioid prescription was another chance that an individual could become dependent or overdose on a particular drug.

What to do

This recent study by JAMA shows the importance of regulating the pharmaceutical industry and the connections of pharmaceutical companies with medical professionals. The United States needs to consider a ban on such forms of marketing. They need to look at the financial relationships between doctors and pharmaceutical companies. Companies should not be able to influence any medical decision made by doctors.

Doctors have to be insulated from the financial options behind their prescriptions and their medical decisions. In addition, the medical profession must be more careful about the prescription of opioids. They should prescribe these dangerous painkillers only when necessary and only for a limited period of time. Reform of the opioid system does not mean taking away these drugs from the chronically ill and other individuals who need them the most. Instead, they have to look at medical necessity and the capacity of an individual to keep up with a prescription after they receive it.

Also, medical professionals need to be open to other forms of painkillers. NSAID pain relievers are sometimes effective at reducing pain without the dependency side effects of opioids. Doctors need to consider these and steroidal painkillers when determining what exactly they need to use in order to relieve an individual’s pain.


Opioids are a fact of modern life. They will continue to be the most effective painkiller for a wide variety of conditions. But structural reforms of the relationship between medical professionals and pharmaceutical companies may decrease the number of prescriptions and reduce addictions that could lead to overdoses. Simple changes could lead to thousands of lives saved each year.