In his best-selling 2005 satirical novel, “Thank You for Smoking,” author Christopher Buckley invented a support group for tobacco, gun and liquor lobbyists called the “MOD Squad,” an acronym for Merchants of Death.
Opioid lobbyists should apply for membership.
The pharmaceutical manufacturers of opioids poured $880 million into lobbying efforts and political coffers between 2005 and 2016 — eight times what pro-gun advocates spent — against legislation to curb prescriptions for painkillers like OxyContin, Vicodin, Percocet and Fentanyl, according to a recent investigation by The Associated Press and the Center for Public Integrity.
Between 2000 and 2014, the annual overdose deaths from opioids quadrupled, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, reaching 28,700. The epidemic involves the soaring use of heroin, triggered in large part by opioid-based prescription painkillers. Studies show nearly 75 percent of new heroin users first used the prescription drugs.
An estimated 2.4 million Americans are addicted to synthetic pain relievers or heroin, a significant problem for the criminal justice system, health care and taxpayers.
At the National Governors Association meeting in July, 45 governors signed an agreement to tighten rules on prescription painkillers but face battles with the major pharmaceutical companies employing 1,350 lobbyists and their seemingly unlikely ally, the American Cancer Society.
“The opioid lobby has been doing everything it can to preserve the status quo of aggressive prescribing,” said Dr. Andrew Kolodny, founder of Physicians for Responsible Opioid Prescribing. “They are reaping enormous profits from aggressive prescribing.”
For their part, the major opioid manufacturers claim they have encouraged doctors to prescribe more cautiously and encouraged states to share databases of prescriptions to thwart addicts and drug traffickers.
The AP cites New Mexico as an example where the opioid lobby was successful in killing a 2012 bill limiting initial prescriptions of opioid painkillers for acute pain to seven days, although it exempted those with chronic pain. The campaign was launched by a mother whose son was given a bottle of Percocet after breaking his collarbone in wrestling practice and then descended into addiction and death.
According to the National Institute on Money in State Politics, the opioid industry ramped up the Pain Care Forum, nonprofits they help fund, with members contributing $24 million to 7,100 candidates, primarily key decision makers, over a 10-year period.
As other states sought to limit opioids for first-time users, Big Pharma and its allies have lobbied for exceptions for chronic sufferers.
Barby Ingle, president of the International Pain Foundation, which receives pharmaceutical company funding, told the AP, “There’s such a hysteria going on. … There are millions who are living a better life who are on the medications long term.”
Yet the AP notes “studies have shown weak or no evidence that opioids are effective ways to treat routine chronic pain. And one 2015 study from a hospital system in Pennsylvania found about 40 percent of chronic noncancer pain patients receiving opioids had some signs of addiction and 4 percent had serious problems.”
“You can create an awful lot of harm with seven days of opioid therapy,” said Dr. David Juurlink, a University of Toronto toxicology expert. “You can send people down the pathway to addiction when they never would have been sent there otherwise.”
Tennessee Republican state Rep. Ryan Williams wanted to limit prescription painkillers after learning more than 900 babies were born to opioid-addicted mothers in 2013. The babies suffered from withdrawal — seizures, vomiting, diarrhea and loud-pitched screams — requiring morphine and had complications after leaving the hospital.
Tennessee ranked third in the country for per-capita distribution of opioids — 1.3 prescriptions per person — and had no mechanism to discipline doctors.
His effort was blocked in large part by the American Cancer Society’s Cancer Action Network lobbyists, although prescribing painkillers for cancer patients would have remained legal.
Its 200 lobbyists nationwide, according to the AP, “have taken similar positions elsewhere, defending rules that some argue encourage extensive prescriptions and opposing opioid measures even if the proposed legislation specifically exempted cancer patients.”
Four major opioid makers provided at least $100,000 in funding to the Cancer Action Network in 2015.
According to the Iowa Prescription Monitoring Program, Iowa doctors and health-care providers prescribed 300 million painkillers in 2015 for a population of three million — 100 per person. The problem, according to health-care professionals, also stems from patient demands, which requires education on the risks and the rewards.
While our current state of political paranoia has many believing the greatest threats to our health and well-being are coming from outside our borders, the statistics clearly indicate otherwise.