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)