As Gov. Tom Wolf and the state legislature wrestle with what to do about the opioid epidemic in Pennsylvania, I have noticed a deafening silence on one of the causes of the problem – pharmaceutical companies. I believe they should help pay the bill for whatever our state government decides to do.

According to the Centers for Disease Control (cdc.gov), since the year 2000, “the rate of deaths from drug overdoses has increased 137 percent, including a 200 percent in the rate of deaths involving opioids.” The deaths cross all boundaries of our society, from rich, middle class and poor to white, black and Hispanic. One of the causes of the epidemic? Greed.

According to Alex Larson, a writer for the Huffington Post, the dramatic increase in deaths correlates to the more aggressive tactics pharmaceutical companies used to get doctors to prescribe high-level opioids, even for minor complaints where the medication was not necessary. Larson quotes a 2003 Government Accounting Office report that “…found Purdue Pharma gave doctors 34,000 coupons for free OxyContin prescriptions.” What’s even more bizarre is they also gave out hats, stuffed animals, coffee mugs and more emblazoned with the OxyContin label.

The article also includes the fact that in 1991, there were 76 million opioid prescriptions. By 2013, there were 207 million.

Another article in the New Yorker, written by Dr. Celine Gounder, includes some additional shocking facts which include: By 2010, the United States, with about 5 percent of the world’s population, was consuming 99 percent of the world’s hydrocodone (the narcotic in Vicodin), along with 80 percent of the oxycodone (in Percocet and OxyContin)...

Sadly, this push to get people on painkillers for higher profits led to addictions, so when people could no longer get the legal prescription they turned to heroin.

Larson claims that four out of five heroin addicts were first addicted to opioids.

The more I read about this connection between Big Pharma and the opioid crises, the angrier I get. One political candidate promises in his TV ad that he will prosecute heroin pushers as murderers. Well, who is going to prosecute the pharmaceutical companies? Larson notes that the Sackler family, who owns Purdue Pharma, is worth $14 billion dollars. Don’t look for any charges being brought against them anytime soon.

What’s even more galling to me is the fact Big Pharma is trying to capitalize on the epidemic. It advertises medication for opioid-caused constipation. One drug to fix a problem caused by another drug. That’s how you make money, especially if you can own both drugs.

In my anger I lose sight of the fact Big Pharma isn’t solely to blame. One article I read said bad science in the 80s assured doctors it was safe to use opioids in extreme cases. The doctors themselves wanted to help patients who were in pain. And we, the patients, didn’t want to hear the old adage of “take two aspirin and call me in the morning.” We wanted relief and we wanted it now even if our pain was nothing compared to what our ancestors endured without medication.

How we got here is clear; it’s what we do about it that is not so clear. To me, one of the biggest things we can do is take away the pharmaceutical companies’ big weapon – television advertising. Try watching one hour of TV without seeing an advertisement for the latest drug (or for attorneys who plan to sue the makers of the latest drug). These ads are a public health threat comparable to the cigarette ads I grew up watching. The FCC banned cigarette ads and it should be pushed to do the same for drug ads. Know this – only the United States and New Zealand allow this type of advertising. No one else in the world permits it.

In November of last year, the American Medical Association called for a ban on drug advertising, saying it was driving up the cost of treatment. It is estimated that the pharmaceutical companies spend $4.5 billion dollars a year on advertising. You can imagine how much profit they plan to make if they’re willing to spend that much on just making you ask your doctor if their drug is right for you.

These enormous profits can be used to help clean up the mess they helped to make with opioids, but they’re not going to do it out of the goodness of their hearts.

Last June, state Rep. Thomas Caltagirone, of Berks County, authored a resolution calling on the state attorney general to file a civil lawsuit against the pharmaceutical companies. This suit needs to go forward and should be joined by every other state in the union.

Banning ads and suing the companies may seem extreme, but so is the epidemic we’re enduring. Unless our state leaders call them on the carpet, we taxpayers will end up footing the entire bill – and the drug epidemic will continue as long as the legal pushers can make a profit.

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