When Lawsuits Aren’t Enough: Big Pharma and the Opioid Epidemic

Guest Post by Morgan Statt

Hardly a day goes by without hearing news of America’s opioid epidemic. 2016 was the worst year for opioid deaths, with overdoses claiming over 63,000 lives. With jarring statistics like this one, government officials have started to assign blame for opioid use reaching crisis levels.

Their target? Drug companies

Almost every single state in the U.S. has filed lawsuits against drug manufacturers and distributors for their involvement and essential creation of the opioid epidemic. Sadly the cost penalties, which are minuscule in the face of humongous profits, are unlikely to trigger genuine reform.

Big Pharma is Big Business.

We can assign blame to the drug companies for their involvement in the crisis, and lawsuits are an effective way to do that. However if we are genuine about stemming the current opioid crisis, we must commit to making fundamental changes in the US health care system.

Two areas in vital need of reform are clinical trial funding and massive Big Pharma lobbying.

  1. Drug companies are allowed to fund clinical trials

Each year, the National Institute of Health sets aside a portion of its budget to fund clinical trials that are needed before a drug can hit the market. In recent years, however, a Johns Hopkins study revealed that this funding has drastically fallen and is now largely supported by pharmaceutical companies. With financial interest in the outcomes of certain clinical trials, industry funding presents the opportunity for drug companies to favor positive results over negative outcomes that may affect patient safety.

Look no further than the blood thinner Pradaxa’s clinical trial RE-LY to serve as an example. Critics of this industry-funded trial pointed out that it generalized the medication’s population and failed to be a double-blind study, presenting a prime possibility for bias and misreporting.

Hasty FDA approval followed these skewed trial results, and Pradaxa was put on the market in 2010 without an antidote to reduce its blood thinning effects. For five years, an antidote failed to be introduced, and severe bleeding incidents and over 1,000 deaths occurred as a result of taking the medication. Since then, a wave of lawsuits have been filed against manufacturer Boehringer Ingelheim for its hand in the bleeding incidents. Finally in 2014, over 4,000 claims were satisfied with a $650 million settlement.

  1. The #1 Lobbying Industry is Pharmaceutical/Health

Lobbying is a legal activity that is meant to help those who don’t have direct access to members of Congress get their voices heard. Although this practice is theoretically good-hearted, the reality is that money has the power to influence decisions that negatively impact the American public. In the first quarter of 2017 alone, the pharmaceutical industry spent $78 million in its lobbying efforts, an increase of $10 million since 2016.

This phenomenal dollar spend has enabled Big Pharma to sway policy decisions in favor of big business rather than public safety. In regards to the opioid crisis, The Pain Care Forum, funded by the pharmaceutical industry, spent over $740 million to stop legislation that would have put limits on opioid prescribing habits.

Morgan Statt is a Safety Investigator at ConsumerSafety.org


photo credit: DES Daughter Opioid Epidemic via photopin (license)

4 thoughts on “When Lawsuits Aren’t Enough: Big Pharma and the Opioid Epidemic

  1. After spending hundreds of hours studying the opioid epidemic (which is largely blamed for the current decrease in US life expectancy), Congress still couldn’t figure out the root cause of the epidemic, namely that the US allows Big Pharma to control most of America’s medical research and to spend more on lobbying than any other industry group. Sometimes you just need to state the obvious.


  2. Where does our medical doctors come into all of this? I mean, Big Pharma can make these drugs available thanks in part to the U.S. military seeing to it that opium is shipped in massive quantities from Afghanistan to the states and around the world to feed this epidemic, however, Big Pharma does not write out the prescriptions, our doctors do.

    There is much blame to go around for this mess, but I have yet to hear of anyone from the CDC or from the political spectrum or from the medical community talk about how the crack epidemic of the 80s that decimated Black communities should not have been criminalized, but should have been deemed, a public health threat and crisis just as this opioid epidemic has been labeled and so release all the jailed crack addicts.

    As I pointed out in a recent article here, when I was in a serious car crash, Black, as I am, I was never prescribed opioids for my pain but was instead sent, by pain management, to a psychiatrist so that she could prescribe therapy for me to do some deep breathing and other ‘mind altering’ exercises to help my body escape from the pain of my injuries. And it has been stated that doctors do not prescribe opioids to their Black patients for “fear that we will sell them or become addicted to them.” I know this because I posted a blog about it. So, according to medical doctors, only Black people are predisposed to addictions and so to protect us from ourselves, they are not prescribing opioids to us, but apparently, they are just now finding out that white folks can become addicts.

    There is a television show that was on the other night, and it was called, “Intervention.” It was all about the fact that there is deep concern because the affluent suburbs of Atlanta have been flooded with opioids and now, those affluent folks are injecting themselves with heroin and are overdosing by the hundreds. They called it, “The Triangle” because of the triangular shape of where these overdoses are occurring in these rich suburban areas near Atlanta. Of course, not one Black person was featured because we’re not affluent and so therefore, are not deserving of an entire cast of “Intervention” coming to a ghetto or ‘hood’ near us to help us overcome our drug addictions.

    Baltimore, MD was given the dubious distinction , ‘The Heroin Capitol of America’, decades ago and these ‘Intervention’ folks couldn’t find their way to heading to Baltimore to assist those people who have for decades, been dealing with an off the charts heroin epidemic. I posted a blog about that as well.

    And so as always, when and only when, things of this sort start killing whites, especially rich whites, there will come an ‘intervention’ while Black folks can just die already. Racism never gets old in AmeriKKKa. That’s for sure!

    Lastly, there were certainly no lawsuits filed against the CIA for introducing crack into the Black communities, nationwide. A tale of two AmeriKKKas indeed!


  3. My word, Shelby, you have certainly opened some cans of worms here. You are really good at that, though, exposing some inconvenient truths about institutional racism in the medical establishment. I find it totally inexcusable that in 2018 that an African American going to a doctor runs the risk of being under treated or inappropriately treated because of their ethnicity. During the sixties and seventies, there was a strong move among the African American community to address this problem by training more black doctors. I think we did significantly increase black doctors, but then many of these doctors decided they didn’t want to treat poor patients because it wasn’t financially advantageous.

    You raise an extremely important point about why doctors are writing so many prescriptions for opioids. I honestly can’t answer it. When I left the US in 2002, neither I nor most of my colleagues would write opioid prescriptions for anyone because of heavy intimidation by the DEA – we always referred pain patients to pain specialists who were experienced in prescribing them. Any doctor who wanted to prescribe a narcotic had to fill out a special triplicate prescription with one copy going straight to the DEA. We were also going through a period where the DEA was sending fictitious undercover patients to our offices trying to trick us into prescribing controlled drugs for them. I had one friend who lost her license for prescribing codeine “without a good faith medical exam” for a prostitute claiming to have a toothache (and making a dental appointment for her the same day) and another friend in his mid-sixties who was dragged through a waiting room full of patients in handcuffs for prescribing 5 mg of Ritalin for a different undercover patient claiming to have adult ADHD. This was a big reason why I left – I couldn’t continue to practice under this kind of insanity.

    Clearly doctors are feeling less intimidated about prescribing narcotics in 2018 and I suspect this relates to heavy lobbying by Big Pharma.


  4. By the way, you also make an excellent point of authorities refusing to address the social scourge of heroin and cocaine addiction until it starts to affect rich white communities. According to my reading of history, the federal government made a deliberate decision to flood the ghettos with first heroin and then crack cocaine to suppress unrest as factories were shut down and shipped overseas, leaving hundreds of thousands of African Americans jobless and destitute.


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