Rutland Herald and Montpelier (Barre) Times Argus

April 22nd, 2017


In case you missed this Associated Press report earlier this week, it is worth noting.

CHARLESTON, W.Va. (AP) — Eric Eyre had been reporting on the state's opioid addiction crisis for more than a year before he discovered previously confidential federal records showing drug wholesalers shipped 780 million hydrocodone and oxycodone pills to West Virginia in just six years, a period when 1,728 people fatally overdosed on the painkillers.

“On Monday Eyre of the Charleston Gazette-Mail won a Pulitzer for investigative reporting. Eyre obtained previously confidential records sent by the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration to the office of West Virginia's Attorney General……Eyre reported that for more than a decade, the same distributors disregarded rules to report suspicious orders for controlled substances in West Virginia to the state Board of Pharmacy.

“The records — which leading drug wholesalers had fought in court to keep secret — show the wholesalers shipped ever-higher doses of the pills even as the death toll climbed.”

The Pulitzer board cited "courageous reporting, performed in the face of powerful opposition."

With reports like this, we are now increasingly aware of the scope of the opioid crisis. In 2015, more than 50,000 Americans died of drug overdoses. About two thirds of those deaths were caused by opioids. In other words, painkillers prescribed by doctors killed as many or more people than those killed on the nation's highways or in gun violence.

But what is also now becoming general knowledge is that one of the main reasons for the staggering number of opioid victims is that “opioid makers played a big role in getting people hooked on drugs.” That is the thrust of a report this week on, a progressive on-line news site, now led by former Washington Post columnist Ezra Klein.

According to this VOX report:

“A top Senate Democrat is launching a formal investigation into one of the big culprits behind the nation’s worst drug overdose crisis in history: pharmaceutical companies.

“On Tuesday, Sen. Claire McCaskill (D-MO), the top Democrat on the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee, announced that she is requesting marketing, sales, and addiction study material from the companies behind America’s top five opioid products. The investigation, she said, will draw out the role that opioid manufacturers played in causing the epidemic and letting it continue.”

But before you get your hopes up, USA Today reported McCaskill will have to have Republican support on the committee to be able to subpoena opioid makers documents should the companies not comply with her requests. So far it is not clear how much, if any, Republican support she will get.

Meantime, the VOX report contains substantial details to support its allegations that the explosive use of opioids was due to “misleading marketing by major drug companies.”

According to VOX:  “In fact, Purdue Pharma, a producer of OxyContin, in 2007 was forced to pay hundreds of millions of dollars in fines due to its false claims about opioids.

The Associated Press reported: “Purdue Pharma, its president, top lawyer and former chief medical officer will pay $634.5 million in fines for claiming the drug was less addictive and less subject to abuse than other pain medications, U.S. Attorney John Brownlee said in a news release.

“Purdue learned from focus groups with physicians in 1995 that doctors were worried about the abuse potential of OxyContin. The company then gave false information to its sales representatives that the drug had less potential for addiction and abuse than other painkillers, the U.S. attorney said.” This story is to be continued, but it is my hope that one of these days, “Big Pharma” will have its sails significantly trimmed.

The United States is the only country in the developed world that does not regulate drug prices, and that hasn’t just happened by chance. It is a function of the richest, most powerful lobbying group in America. For example, do you know why Medicare cannot negotiate significant bulk discounts for its patients? Well, there once was a Republican Congressman from Louisiana named William Joseph Tauzin who just happened to be the chairman of the House Energy and Commerce committee which was the committee that drew up the prescription drug benefit legislation in 2003.

“Billy”, wrote much of the new law, especially one of its main features explicitly forbidding the government from negotiating with drug companies to secure lower payments for Medicare beneficiaries. So guess what happened to Billy, the guy who wrote the bill that provides an enormous windfall - tens of billions- for the drug companies? In January 2005, he became the president of the Pharmaceutical and Manufacturers of America - big pharma’s chief lobbyist- at $2 million a year.

He was still a major player in 2009/10 when Obamacare was being developed. He agreed to drug company support for a healthcare plan, on the condition that it did not regulate prescription drug prices. Ultimately, he won that battle too.

I confess my view of the drug companies was forever colored by a book I read and reviewed here a dozen years ago called, ‘The Truth about the Drug Companies.” It was written by Dr. Marcia Angell, who at one time was the editor-in- chief of the New England Journal of Medicine, taught medical ethics at Harvard and was once one of Time magazine’s 25 most influential people in America.

My review of her book included these words from her Random House publisher, “Dr. Angell had a front row seat to the growing corruption of the pharmaceutical industry…she saw them gain nearly limitless influence over medical research, education and how doctors do their jobs. Angell powerfully demonstrates claims that high drug prices are necessary to fund research and development are unfounded. The truth is that drug companies funnel the bulk of their resources into the marketing of products of dubious benefit. Meantime as their profits soar, the companies brazenly use their wealth and power to push their agenda through Congress the FDA and the academic medical centers.” Evidently, nothing has changed.

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