Tag Archives: big tobacco

Is There an Answer to Opioid Crisis?

What a difference two words make.

Last week, President Trump declared the opioid epidemic a “national public health emergency.” The declaration will speed up how quickly specialized personnel can be hired, expand access to treatment for some addicts and make some HIV/AIDS programs more flexible.

But many people wish he’d left out the words “public health.” That’s because a “national emergency” would have freed up money, and lots of it. The Public Health Emergency Fund at Health and Human Services currently contains only $57,000. And the president did not ask Congress to refill it.

But we shouldn’t entertain the idea that the federal government, or any other entity, is going to “fix” the opioid epidemic, just as you can’t pin blame for the crisis on a single entity. The epidemic is all-encompassing, far-flung and complex, and it unfolded over two decades and millions of bad decisions.

See also: 6 Shocking Facts on Opioid Abuse  

Pharmaceutical manufacturers are partly to blame because they marketed opioids as safe when taken as prescribed. Doctors and medical institutions compounded the problem because they didn’t adequately question and research these false claims. Drug distributors shipped massive amounts of drugs to places that obviously didn’t need them, and pharmacists looked the other way when filling prescriptions that were clearly too large. The Drug Enforcement Administration allowed manufacturers to make more and more opioids, even as overdose death rates skyrocketed. And many patients and drug users didn’t take responsibility for their own health.

There’s no one person or organization responsible for the crisis, and there’s no easy fix, no magic bullet.

I was disturbed by the recent reports that the Trump administration was “scrambling” to formulate an opioid plan. This epidemic didn’t have simple causes, and the response to it should not be rushed out. Meaningful change will require a response that recognizes millions of addictions have been created that aren’t going anywhere.

Each of the parties that took part in creating of this epidemic must be a part of the solution.

For instance, doctors and medical schools need to develop drastically different prescribing protocols to avoid creating addictions. Their far-more-challenging task will be to develop ways to deal with all of the patients who have been prescribed high doses of opioids for many years and are understandably terrified that they will be taken off their meds, even though the drugs are probably sapping their lives of vitality. How do you treat those patients so they don’t turn to street drugs?

The federal government does have one big stick in its arsenal that hasn’t been used, which is the fact that the DEA is in charge of setting manufacturing quotas for all controlled substances. The DEA could use this power to force drugmakers to better track where their opioids are ending up. This hasn’t happened, and in fact, the DEA permitted hike after hike in manufacturing quotas, finally cutting the rates only in the last two years.

See also: Opioids: Invading the Workplace  

In the end, I think the gathering tsunami of lawsuits against the drug companies may prove to be more effective than the federal government’s response. The eventual settlements could dwarf the $206 billion in Big Tobacco settlements from 1998. We need to make sure that any settlement provides lots of money for research and treatment.

But neither the federal government nor plaintiffs’ lawyers are going to “solve” this epidemic. Addictions, once created, don’t die easily. The opioid crisis is going to be a part of life in the U.S. for a long time.

Big Opioid Pharma = Big Tobacco?

Have you noticed that big opioid pharma (BOP), manufacturers and distributors of prescription opioids are under attack? I have.

In fact, I’ve written about it for awhile. You can read “Suing Big Opioid Pharma – The Next Big Thing?” from 3/13/17, “780,069,272 Pain Pills” from 12/20/16, “Suing Big Opioid Pharma” from 9/27/16 and “Patients Sue Physicians’ and Pharmacists” from 5/22/15.

As I’ve followed the strategic initiative, it reminds me of big tobacco. As a refresher, it was accused (informally, at first, and then collectively, over time) of knowing that tobacco was dangerous and addictive but kept it a secret. In November 1998, attorney generals from 46 states entered into the Tobacco Master Settlement Agreement (MSA) with the four major tobacco companies:

The states settled their Medicaid lawsuits against the tobacco industry for recovery of their tobacco-related health-care costs, and also exempted the companies from private tort liability regarding harm caused by tobacco use. In exchange, the companies agreed to curtail or cease certain tobacco marketing practices, as well as to pay, in perpetuity, various annual payments to the states to compensate them for some of the medical costs of caring for persons with smoking-related illnesses. In the MSA, the original participating manufacturers (OPM) agreed to pay a minimum of $206 billion over the first 25 years of the agreement.

See also: Misconception That Leads to Opioids  

Throughout 2017, I have saved every article I read on the subject of the opiod problem (see below). You are more than welcome to read the entire article, but I think the date (constant throughout the year), source (wide variety of publications) and headline (provocative and descriptive) provide a sweeping perspective on the scope of this activity:

The full scope of the opiod crises includes an investigation by Congress; lawsuits by individual states, counties and cities around the country (and in Canada); collaboration among attorney generals; and class action lawsuits. (And maybe others). The initiation of most of this action is not academic, it is personal.

Take Mike Moore, the former Mississippi attorney general who was the first to sue Big Tobacco using a then-unproven legal strategy. His nephew started with Percocet as prescribed by a doctor in 2006. By 2010, he was using street fentanyl. Moore saved his nephew from an overdose by taking him directly to the hospital.

As he’s watched the tobacco victory pay off in declining smoking rates, he’s also seen easy access to powerful pain medication spark a new deadly crisis. He’s convinced this is the moment to work the same mechanisms on the drug companies that forced the tobacco industry to heel — and he’s committed himself to making that happen. “It’s clear they’re not going to be part of the solution unless we drag them to the table.”

The primary argument against BOP is the same as the one against Big Tobacco. BOP knew the dangers of their product, but they misled consumers (in this case, prescribers) by purposefully obfuscating the truth.

See also: Opioids: Invading the Workplace  

If you look at the evidence (anecdotal and factual), it appears as though there was a strategic effort to hide the truth. Of course, all of this in large part is still alleged — not proven in a court of law — and BOP will have an opportunity to make their arguments.

Except… In May, Purdue Pharma settled a class-action lawsuit in Canada for $20 million. But of course, settlements always include the language “no admission of guilt.” As I stated in a post:

$20 million (or 0.064% of OxyContin revenue) to settle? This is a rounding error for Purdue Pharma. But not to those who became dependent/addicted and lost anything from an active lifestyle to life itself. Fair and equitable? That was a rhetorical question — I don’t believe it is either fair or equitable. Not so much the dollar amount, but the fact that it will not hurt Purdue at all in the pocketbook. If the goal of a lawsuit is to change behavior because it’s too painful not to, then this probably didn’t hit the mark.

Whether you believe the opioid epidemic is real or not (I do), or whether you think at least some of the deaths from illicit street heroin and fentanyl are a consequence of over-prescribing prescription opioids (I do), I think we can all agree it’s wrong for a company to tell its customers there is no danger when there really is (and when the company knows it). In this case, it can be deadly.

So if BOP wants to know where this is heading, they just need to refresh their memories about what happened with Big Tobacco. What happened then is about to happen again.