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Why the Pills Roam Free

News & Politics


By Reginald Hughes

(U.S.) With the rise of heroin use, prescription drug abuse, and overdoses in the U.S, the question of what has caused the increase in usage and popularity of these drugs becomes an important one. The answer lies with the pharmaceutical industry.

The pharmaceutical industry has come to be one of the most profitable industries in America, with it now making at least $200 billion a year from drug sales. Even in the economic crash of 2002, the top drug companies saw little change in profits with business continuing almost as usual.

What led to the pharmaceutical industry having this kind of presence over America? In 1980, the Reagan administration brought on a “pro-business” shift in society, and due to a series of government actions, the pharmaceutical industry was given the opportunity to thrive.

Arguably, the most important change would be the Bayh-Dole act; this act changed the way that drug companies could acquire new drugs. The act allowed for universities and small companies that are funded by tax-money to patent new drug discoveries and grant exclusive licenses to individual drug companies.

Previously, tax-payer funded discoveries would have been public domain, free to be used by any company, but the Bayh-Dole act allowed for companies to buy monopolies on new drugs and profit exclusivity.

Another set of laws, beginning with the Hatch-Waxman act, also had a large effect on the pharmaceutical industry, allowing for companies to manipulate and extend drug patents up to double their original duration.

The “pro-business” shift that the Reagan administration brought also had an effect on the views of both academia and the medical industry, with the focus of financial gain becoming more encouraged.

Under the influence of the pharmaceutical industry, new standards were issued, encouraging doctors to measure and view pain as though it were a fifth vital sign as opposed to the previous view of pain as a symptom. Following these new standards, prescribing pain medication was encouraged, and with the arrival of OxyContin in 1995, sales went through the roof.

 Drug companies began to run marketing campaigns for OxyContin, holding “pain conferences” targeted towards physicians in order to convince them to prescribe the drug. The companies distributed branded promotional items and coupons for free OxyContin prescriptions for doctors to distribute. This advertising worked, and today, drug companies put up to thirty-six percent of their profits in to the marketing of new drugs.

 Now, instead of resolving issues, patients have come to expect a pill to make symptoms go away, and doctors are less prepared for the risks of addiction thanks to the pro-opioid campaigns of the pharmaceutical companies.

In 2003, warnings that OxyContin abuse would lead to heroin abuse were dismissed by drug companies, but in 2007, after many users became addicted to the drug, the Department of Justice sued the makers of OxyContin for misleading the FDA, doctors, and patients about the dangers of the drug. The drug industry paid $600 million in the lawsuit; a small sum when compared to the industry’s profits.

With the financial strength and standing that the pharmaceutical industry has gained, it has also gained strong political power, and the industry has no issue influencing important decisions regarding drug regulations and laws. The drug industry has even been able to change things about the FDA; the agency that should be keeping the drug companies in check.

Recently, when the CDC planned to reform guidelines for prescribing pain medication, it was strongly opposed by many groups funded by the drug industry, and due to that pressure, the process to enact the reform faltered.

The drug industry has also opposed the legalization of medical marijuana, which can have a wide range of medical uses including pain relief. The drug company Insys Theraputics donated $500,000 to a group opposing the legalization of medical marijuana, one of the highest donations ever made to any anti-legalization group.

 Recent research also shows that there is a correlation between marijuana and reduced drug prescriptions in states where medical marijuana has been legalized. The rise in popularity of medical marijuana appears to be cutting into the drug industry’s profits, and the drug industry looks to be ready to defend its interests.

Insys Theraputics happens to manufacture synthetic version of marijuana’s active ingredient, THC, as well as the deadly opiate pain drug, fentanyl, that has fueled the rise in overdose deaths in recent years.

Upon viewing the history of the pharmaceutical industry and its reputation of putting profits first, a new light is shed on the current prescription drug problems that face the U.S and why these problems have impacted so many Americans.

To read the first article in this series, click here.

Header image from BBC.

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