What others say: Did Big Pharma play a role in opioid epidemic?

  • By Denver Post editorial
  • Monday, June 26, 2017 11:06am
  • Opinion

An important question for the nation as it struggles with its opioid epidemic is whether, or to what degree, Big Pharma is behind the disaster. Were doctors too often swayed by drugmakers in prescribing painkillers needlessly? Were the drugmakers aware of the dangers of addiction but unwilling to change practices in marketing the drugs? Could more have been done to make the drugs harder to abuse?

Such questions gain even more importance now that the coast-to-coast epidemic is overwhelming hospitals. According to recently released public data from the Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality, hospitals saw 1.27 million opioid-related emergency room visits or inpatient stays in 2014, the latest year for which data are available. The total is a 64 percent increase for in-room care and nearly 100 percent increase in the ER from 2005.

So count us as pleased that Colorado Attorney General Cynthia Coffman has been working with dozens of state attorneys general in a months-long investigation that intends to answer these questions. Coffman tells us that findings from the recently acknowledged investigation are soon to be released.

What to expect? “We have reason to believe that there are some opioid manufacturers who chose not to see the dangers of over-prescribing,” Coffman tells us.

A little history helps in considering the investigation by the attorneys general. Starting in the mid-1970s, as Percocet and Vicodin started showing up in the medicine cabinet, doctors were being told the drugs could work wonders in managing pain. In 1980, a New England Journal of Medicine report stated that addiction shouldn’t be of concern. In the ’80s, pain-management specialists like Russell Portenoy were telling doctors and patients that opioid painkillers were safe and a more humane alternative to surgery.

In the ’90s, Purdue Pharma’s OxyContin debuted. Doctors started talking about doing a better job of treating pain. Purdue created a video promotion sent to doctors’ offices that showcased patients who had reclaimed their lives from chronic pain, and an expert in the videos claimed the drugs came without serious side effects.

Sales of the painkillers mushroomed, and during the first years of this century, pain management through opioid prescriptions became the expectation.

In 2011, Portenoy and others began reversing their recommendations as addictions to opioids, either prescription drugs or illegals like heroin, began to rise.

“Clearly,” Portenoy said, “if I had an inkling of what I know now then, I wouldn’t have spoken in the way that I spoke. It was clearly the wrong thing to do.”

But it wasn’t until last year that the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention issued guidelines for prescribing the drugs to alert doctors. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration ordered oxycodone and fentanyl carry warnings about addiction.

Yes, there should be the expectation of personal accountability. Abusing prescription medications or turning to the illegal drug trade to feed an addiction are irresponsible acts. But given that we’re talking about highly addictive substances in the first place, the AGs are easily within their right to question whether prescription drugmakers were cynical in promoting their medicines.

We’ll have to wait to review the findings to know exactly how to respond. But, as with investigations that revealed corrupt practices in cigarette sales, it’s certainly reasonable to think that drugmakers should be on the hook to help cover the societal damage this epidemic has created.

— The Denver Post,

June 20

More in Opinion

Capitol
Opinion: Humanism and the billionaire class

Compromise is the right thing to do and they should do it.

tt
Opinion: The challenged truths of 3 elected representatives

“Politicians lying is nothing new.”

This photo shows the Mendenhall Glacier Visitor Center. (Ben Hohenstatt / Juneau Empire File)
Opinion: The wrong way to define demand

And as glaciers go, the Mendenhall is only a minor attraction.

Zachary Hamilton (Courtesy photo)
Borough mayoral candidate: ‘The best is yet to come’

Zachary Hamilton is running for Kenai Peninsula Borough mayor in the special election

Love, INC in Soldotna, Alaska, provides homelessness prevention and housing services to people on the Kenai Peninsula. (Photo by Brian Mazurek/Peninsula Clarion)
Opinion: COVID relief funds help homeless children in Alaska

We need to sustain this kind of investment.

Gov. Mike Dunleavy holds a press conference at the Capitol on Tuesday, April 9, 2019. (Juneau Empire file photo)
Opinion: Alaska must act now to capitalize on carbon markets

Alaska has vast forests and coastlines that can provide natural carbon management

1
Opinion: MLK Day clinics offered in the ‘spirit of service and advocacy for equality and social justice’

Attorneys across the state will be spending their holiday as “A Day On, Not a Day Off”

The M/V Tustumena comes into Homer after spending the day in Seldovia in 2010. (Homer News File)
Opinion: New federal funding could aid Alaska Marine Highway System

The evidence is clear that the AMHS is in grave danger of failing and moving into Alaska’s history books

(Mark Sabbatini / Juneau Empire File)
Opinion: I’ve seen the union difference

As a community we can show solidarity…

(Peter Segall / Juneau Empire File)
Sullivan’s irrelevance in defense of democracy

Two years ago this week, supporters of then-President Donald Trump stormed the U.S. Capitol…

People vote in polling booths at the Soldotna Regional Sports Complex on Tuesday, Nov. 8, 2022, in Soldotna, Alaska. (Ashlyn O’Hara/Peninsula Clarion)
Voices of the Peninsula: What’s on your 2023 schedule so far?

There is a Kenai Peninsula Borough Special Mayoral Election coming up in February

Soldotna City Council member Dave Carey testifies in support of the Kenai Peninsula Reentry Coalition during a meeting of the Kenai City Council on Wednesday, March 16, 2022, in Kenai, Alaska. (Ashlyn O’Hara/Peninsula Clarion)
Voices of the Peninsula: Vote Carey for borough mayor

I know the responsibilities and obligations of being borough mayor