Bad Medicine

Big Pharma has spent nearly $900 million to stop states from placing limits on their addictive drugs

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As America’s opioid epidemic rapidly increased to crisis levels over the course of the last decade, pharmaceutical companies like Purdue, which makes Oxycontin, and Pfizer, the second-largest drug company in the world, employed over 1,300 lobbyists around the country and collectively spent over $880 million between 2006 and 2015 in an effort to stop states from enacting laws that would limit access to painkillers, a report published on Sunday by the Associated Press and the Center for Public Integrity found.

A study published in 2013 found that four in five new heroin users got there by misusing opioid painkillers. Yet lobbyists have been successful in killing bills that could have potentially shrunk their markets in states such as New Mexico and Tennessee.

Many of these same companies—including and especially Purdue—were aware that there were significant risks to the painkillers they were creating before they even hit the market, and hid internal test results that showed their pills didn’t work as advertised, as the Los Angeles Times reported in May. Purdue’s Oyxcontin was made, marketed and sold as a twelve-hour painkiller, but, as the Times noted, in every internal test study the company made of the drug, between 50 and 95 percent of the patients reported needing additional pain medicine before the twelve hours were up. Even so, Purdue marketed the drug as a convenient, twice-a-day pill, and reaped the rewards. Between 2006 and 2010, Oxycontin sales tripled to over $3 billion.

The AP report details multiple, intensive lobbying efforts by drug companies. In New Mexico, manufacturers and members of their families donated almost $40,000 to the campaigns of most members of the state House Judiciary Committee, which later killed a bill that would place a one-week limit on some opioid painkiller prescriptions to prevent addiction. And in Tennessee, health advocacy groups funded by drugmakers squashed an effort to close a legal loophole that required clinicians uncomfortable with prescribing a patient opioid painkillers to direct them to a doctor who would. (That bill eventually passed in a subsequent year.)

But pharmaceutical companies aren’t just fighting against bills that would limit their drugs. They’re also trying to kill the competition—especially medicinal marijuana.

Promising new research published by researchers at Columbia University’s Mailman School of Health found that states that had legalized medical cannabis saw an overall reduction in fatal car crashes in which one of the drivers had opioids in their system. This follows other recent research that shows that medical cannabis programs reduce both opioid overdose fatality rates and prescriptions for other drugs, specifically opioid painkillers. So naturally, pharmaceutical companies are donating significant sums to try and prevent medicinal marijuana from taking further hold.

If you want to look up whether your doctor or political representatives have accepted donations from pharmaceutical companies, ProPublica, the Center for Responsive Politics, and the National Institute on Money in State Politics have very helpful databases.

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