In the president’s telling, the great villains of the opioid epidemic are Mexican cartels and the politically correct politicians who’ve allowed them to run amok. In reality, the opioid crisis wasn’t launched by drug dealers smuggling narcotics across America’s border, but by pharmaceutical companies hawking them over the nation’s airwaves.
In the mid-1990s, Purdue Pharma patented OxyContin, and began aggressively marketing the opioid to doctors and patients. The company held all-expenses-paid conferences for specialists, in which they treated the assembled physicians to fine food and wine — and seminars on OxyContin’s capacity to relieve chronic pain with little risk of engendering abuse or addiction. Purdue conveyed that same message to patients in lay terms through media advertisements.
The Drug Enforcement Agency would later claim that this “aggressive, excessive and inappropriate” marketing had “very much exacerbated” the abuse of OxyContin. And in 2007, Purdue and three of its executives pleaded guilty to federal charges of misbranding drugs, and were forced to pay a $635 million fine.
But by then, Purdue’s signature pain reliever had already earned the company billions of dollars — and cost 29,600 Americans their lives.
Further, the company’s “inappropriate” advertising had already popularized the notion that opioids were a low-risk means of alleviating chronic pain, and spurred other pharmaceutical firms to bring their own addictive analgesics to market.
Fortunately, some self-avowed opponents of the epidemic are willing to follow the money. On Wednesday, Ohio attorney general Mike DeWine announced that his state is suing five drugmakers for fueling the opioid crisis by consciously misleading Ohioans about the the addictive potential of their prescription painkillers.
“The evidence is going to show they knew what they were saying was not true and they did it to increase sales,” DeWine told reporters at a news conference, alleging that the firms deliberately marketed their products to general practitioners who “may not have a particular specialty in that area.”
Mississippi, Chicago, and California’s Orange and Santa Clara counties have also sued opioid makers on allegations of malevolent marketing.
Following DeWine’s announcement, Purdue told The Wall Street Journal, “We share the attorney general’s concerns about the opioid crisis and we are committed to working collaboratively to find solutions.”
In truth, Purdue has been working diligently to export America’s opioid crisis to Europe and the developing world. All around the globe, the company’s international brand, Mundipharma, is striving to overcome “opiophobia” — its term for foreign doctors’ mistaken belief that prescription opioids carry a high risk of abuse. As the Los Angeles Times reported late last year:
For generations, physicians have been taught that opioid painkillers are highly addictive and should be used sparingly and primarily in patients near death. Mundipharma executives and consultants call this “opiophobia” and top company officials have said publicly that success in new markets depends on defeating this mind-set.
Meanwhile, the company spent millions encouraging potential patients to recognize their chronic pain as an illness that requires lifelong opioid use.
Seeking new patients in Spain, Mundipharma chose ambassadors guaranteed to attract attention: Naked celebrities. A string of topless actors, musicians and models looked into the camera and told fellow Spaniards to stop dismissing aches and pains as a normal part of life. “Don’t resign yourself,” Maria Reyes, a model and former Miss Spain, said in the 2014 television spot.
So, don’t expect a guilty conscience to tame Purdue’s addiction to profit. Nor, for that matter, can you trust federal regulators to push back against the pharmaceutical industry’s worst instincts: After lamenting the opioid epidemic on the campaign trail, President Trump appointed an FDA chief who has accepted tens of thousands of dollars from opioid makers — and who condemned the DEA’s crackdown on companies that supply “pill mills” in 2012 as a “war on pharmacies and pain patients.”