I’ve you’ve ever wondered how the world has gotten to such an extreme point with opioid addiction, you’re not alone. With the millions of lives affected by addiction–the deaths, the destroyed families, the litigation vs. big pharma, the hundreds of millions in fines, and all the misery–why did it happen so fast and to this extent? There’s enough blame to go around, and at the end of the day, this crisis was all about maximizing profits. Everyone from the pharmaceutical companies to the distributors, the doctors, the drug cartels, and the streets are all culpable. Thanks to this well-funded supply chain, it’s a short hop from a prescription for oxycontin to heroin and on to fentanyl.
However, there are other important factors that contributed to this crisis — the predominant forces that drove us to the drug addiction catastrophe that we now face.
Deregulation and Demand
Deregulation under the Reagan administration laid the groundwork for the crisis we face today. New policies enabled drug companies like Purdue Pharma, Teva Pharmaceutical, Johnson & Johnson, Janssen Pharmaceuticals, Ortho-McNeil-Janssen Pharmaceuticals, and others to aggressively market opioid analgesic products. They employed lobbying campaigns and lavish incentives to convince doctors and regulators that these drugs were needed to treat patients for pain and that they were safe. And this is where the story turns. These opioid drugs were deemed safe–but only when used primarily for patients with advanced cancer or terminal illness. However, under deregulation, opioids became a routine prescription.
Couple that with the American for-profit, private insurance-based system, which demands the cheapest solution to any problem that can be billed with the highest margin, which in most cases involves prescribing medication, and you have a perfect storm for an addiction crisis, not to mention a cash cow. Between 1991 and 2011, painkiller prescriptions tripled in the United States. No doubt, juries across America are finding that the relationship between big pharma and physicians was corrupt. Official figures show that in 2019, 627,000 doctors received combined payments of $2.1 billion in what are termed “general payments,” unrelated to any research being done. At its peak in 2012, the rate of opioid prescriptions reached an astounding 82 prescriptions for every 100 residents, an astounding rate. By contrast, doctors in Japan treat acute pain with opioids in 47% of cases, in the U.S., that figure is more than doubled at a tragic 97%.
It Wasn’t Just the Marketing
The corporate deregulation of the 1980s ran parallel with the deindustrialization of America. During this time, we saw all of the following:
- Mass job losses
- Collapsing communities
- Economic despair
The environment that these issues created was ripe with demand for such a powerful drug. Opioids provide false relief from reality and a dangerous escape from the fatigue and hopelessness of this plight. Big pharma saw this opportunity. Documents reveal that pharmaceutical companies, in an effort to avoid what they perceived as a stereotype of being associated with inner-city, African-American communities, and illicit drug use, targeted the mostly white, rural communities of the Rust Belt–an area on its knees, hit particularly hard by these changes, brimming with potential customers. And business boomed.
Profit, Social Need, and Corruption
This is how we got to the point we are at today. Opioid addiction and overdoses are an epidemic in this country. We gave the pharmaceutical companies carte blanche to market these products. They created demand by promising a pain-free life. They got rich regardless of the consequences. Purdue and Johnson & Johnson and all the others committed contemptible acts and we are left with the ruins. It is the unfortunate result of a system built on greed.