Opinion: Slide starts not on streets, but in a doctor’s office

  • Nicholas Kristof
  • New York Times
12:00 a.m. Wednesday, Oct. 25, 2017 Opinion

For decades, America has waged an ineffective war on drug pushers and drug lords, from Bronx street corners to Medellin, Colombia, regarding them as among the most contemptible specimens of humanity.

One reason our efforts have failed is we ignored the biggest drug pushers of all: U.S. pharmaceutical companies.

Big Pharma should be writhing in embarrassment last week after The Washington Post and “60 Minutes” reported that pharmaceutical lobbyists had manipulated Congress to hamstring the Drug Enforcement Administration. But the abuse goes far beyond that: The industry systematically manipulated the entire country for 25 years, and its executives are responsible for many of the 64,000 deaths of Americans last year from drugs — more than the number of Americans who died in the Vietnam and Iraq wars combined.

The opioid crisis unfolded because greedy people lost their humanity when they saw the astounding profits that could be made.

It used to be in America that people became addicted to opioids through illegal drugs. In the 1960s, for example, 80 percent of Americans hooked on opioids began with heroin.

That has completely changed. Today, 75 percent of people with opioid addictions began with prescription painkillers.

That’s because pharmaceutical companies in the 1990s sought to promote opioid painkillers as new blockbuster drugs. The companies backed front organizations like the American Pain Foundation, which purported to speak on behalf of suffering patients.

These front organizations, as well as professionals sometimes funded by the pharmaceutical industry, heralded pain as the “fifth vital sign,” along with pulse, temperature, respiratory rate and blood pressure. The opioid promoters hailed opioids as “safe and effective,” and they particularly encouraged opioids for returning veterans.

Pharma companies spent heavily advertising opioids — $14 million in medical journals in 2011 alone, almost triple what they had spent in 2001 and pitched them for a wide range of chronic pains, such as arthritis and back pain.

A company affiliated with pharmaceutical company Purdue pleaded guilty of felony fraud in connection with its marketing of OxyContin, but none of its executives went to prison.

Drug companies employed roughly the same strategy as street-corner pushers: Get somebody hooked and business will take care of itself.

A Senate investigation found that one company, Insys Therapeutics, successfully redirected a powerful opioid called Subsys, meant for cancer pain, to patients without cancer. Sarah Fuller, a woman with neck and back pain, was prescribed Subsys by her doctor, who received payments from Insys.

Fuller died of an overdose of Subsys.

Meanwhile, Insys had the best-performing initial public offering in 2013, and revenue tripled in the next two years, the Senate report said.

It’s maddening that the public narrative is still often about an opioid crisis fueled by the personal weakness and irresponsibility of users. No, it’s fueled primarily by the greed and irresponsibility of drug lords — including the kind who inhabit executive suites.

Since 2000, more than 200,000 Americans have died from overdoses of prescription opioids.

There’s a lot of talk in the Trump administration about lifting regulations to free up the dynamism of corporations. Really? You want to see the consequences of unfettered pharma? Go visit a cemetery.

View full experience