At least 64,000 people died of drug overdoses in 2016, with more than 80 percent of those deaths attributed to opioid drugs, according to an August 2017 report from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Government officials say that the crisis is finally getting Washington’s attention, as the Wall Street Journal reported in March 2018, but debates over bigger budgets for law enforcement or drug addiction programs continue to feature most prominently in the corporate press. As Abby Martin of The Empire Files reported in November 2017, this focus potentially distracts from the root of the problem, which is gross misconduct by drug manufacturing giants and their distributors.
Martin’s report featured an interview with Mike Papantonio, a partner in the law firm representing four Ohio counties that are suing pharmaceutical companies for their role in manufacturing the opioid crisis. As Papantonio told Martin, “Big Pharma has operated without any oversight or regulations.”
The beginning of the opioid crisis, Martin reported, goes back to drug manufacturing companies hiring “biostitutes,” a derogatory term for biological scientists hired to misrepresent research or commit fraud in order to protect their employers’ corporate interests. As Martin reported, research by biostitutes was used to make the (misleading) case that opioids could treat pain without the risk of addiction. Purdue Pharma, which manufactures OxyContin, and McKesson, Cardinal Health, and AmerisourceBergen, which distribute that drug and other opioids, suppressed research that showed how addictive opioids are, and they began to push doctors to write more prescriptions on behalf of the “needs” of consumers.
In particular, Papantonio said, distributors targeted the nation’s poorer communities, including industrial cities with high unemployment rates, such as Detroit, and economically-stressed mining communities, as in West Virginia. Such mercenary practices not only impacted the individuals who became addicted, they also ravaged the finances of the targeted cities and counties. As Papantonio told The Empire Files, the opioid crisis has required local government expenditures for everything from new training for emergency medical responders, to the purchase of Naloxone (sold under the brand name Narcan) for treating opioid overdoses, to the expansion of dependency courts to handle the cases of neglected or abused children, and the retooling of jails as de facto rehabilitation centers—all of which have come out of city and county budgets. In his Empire Files interview, Papantonio estimated that the cost for a “typical community” fell between “ninety and two hundred million dollars—that’s just the beginning number.”
Although federal policies—including, most notably, the Comprehensive Drug Abuse Prevention and Control Act in 1970—should have prevented misconduct by Big Pharma manufacturers and distributors, the penalties for violations were too small. Companies literally treated the fines as business expenses, “leaving the federal government and taxpayers to ‘flip the bill,’” TeleSUR reported.
As Censored 2019 went to press, Barry Meier reported in the New York Times that a confidential 120-page Justice Department report showed that federal prosecutors who investigated Purdue Pharma found that the company “knew about ‘significant’ abuse of OxyContin in the first years after the drug’s introduction in 1996 and concealed that information.” According to the Justice Department report, Purdue officials had received information that the pills were being crushed and snorted, and stolen from pharmacies, and that some doctors were being charged with selling prescriptions, but the drug maker continued “in the face of this knowledge” to market OxyContin as less prone to abuse and addiction than other prescription opioids.
Prior to the revelations in Meier’s New York Times report, the most significant coverage on the role of Big Pharma in the opioid crisis was from the Guardian, which ran an October 2017 story on how drug manufacturers have “poured close to $2.5bn into lobbying and funding members of Congress over the past decade”—but most of this report focused on members of Congress and prominent figures in the Trump administration who have received contributions from Big Pharma lobbyists. The Guardian’s report did not address how drug manufacturers and distributors, such as Purdue Pharma and McKesson, have played a central role in creating the opioid epidemic.
Abby Martin, “Death & Biostitutes—The US Opioid Crisis,” Empire Files, TeleSUR English, November 29, 2017, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=iJjIewjgD1A.
Abby Martin, interview with Mike Papantonio, “Empire Files: Abby Martin Talks US Opioid Crisis with Mike Papantonio,” TeleSUR English, November 30, 2017, https://www.telesurtv.net/english/news/Empire-Files-Abby-Martin-Talks-US-Opioid-Crisis-With-Mike-Papantonio-20171130-0017.html.
Student Researcher: Zaynah Almaaita (College of Western Idaho)
Faculty Evaluator: Michelle Mahoney (College of Western Idaho)