Will the real opioid pushers ever be punished?

April 27, 2018

Nicole Colson reports on Bernie Sanders' attempt to demand some responsibility from pharmaceutical companies--and why most politicians would rather look the other way.

"WE KNOW that pharmaceutical companies lied about the addictive impacts of opioids they manufactured. They knew how dangerous these products were but refused to tell doctors and patients. Yet, while some of these companies have made billions each year in profits, not one of them has been held fully accountable for its role in an epidemic that is killing tens of thousands of Americans every year."

Those were Sen. Bernie Sanders' words as he introduced legislation to pin responsibility for the opioid crisis on pharmaceutical companies and executives, and make them pay for it.

Finally, a U.S. politician has dared to suggest that the actual architects of the opioid epidemic--who continue to rake in vast profits off the untold human misery they helped to engineer--should be held accountable.

If passed, Sander's Opioid Crisis Accountability Act of 2018 would, among other things, ban marketing that suggests opioids are not addictive; curtail some opioid distribution; and require pharmaceutical companies that produce opioids to reimburse some of (the estimated $78 billion in annual costs associated with the crisis.

A Teamsters protest against pharmaceutical companies peddling opioids
A Teamsters protest against pharmaceutical companies peddling opioids

IF SUCH a law passed, it would be a welcome change from the current government response to the opioid epidemic--which has mainly focused on increased policing and criminalization of low-level users and dealers, plus Trump's despicable suggestion that some opioid dealers should be given the death penalty.

Despite repeated pleas from public health experts, the Trump administration has dragged its heels on putting forward any substantial initiatives to help those suffering from opioid addiction.

In fact, it has put forward some proposals--like limiting opioid prescriptions through Medicare and Medicaid--that could actually make more people with a legitimate need for pain management turn to street-level opioids like heroin.

At the state and local levels, as many first responders and emergency rooms are finding themselves overwhelmed by the scale of the crisis, there are few answers on offer from politicians beyond the usual recycled "war on drugs" policies of the 1980s.

Meanwhile, the crisis continues to get worse.

Over two-thirds of the annual overdose deaths in the U.S. are due to opioids. With more than 42,000 cases in the U.S. in 2016, and even more in 2017 and 2018--annual opioid overdose deaths of Americans now outnumber those killed each year by breast cancer, by guns, in car accidents and all of the Americans killed during the Vietnam war.

UNDER SANDERS' proposed legislation, drug manufacturers in violation of the marketing provision of the law would be fined 25 percent of the profits from their opioid products.

Additionally, top drug company executives who were found to be in violation of the law could be held criminally liable--facing a 10-year minimum prison sentence if their company has illegally contributed to the crisis and fines equal to their personal executive compensation.

These executives should be held accountable. The current opioid crisis was largely fueled by the pharmaceutical industry's drive for profits. In the case of Purdue Pharma, the maker of OxyContin, for example, the company may have fueled opioid addictions in the U.S. by deliberately downplaying the risk of addiction to doctors and offering false information about how long the drug remained effective.

In 2007, Purdue Pharma pleaded guilty to federal felony charges that the company misled regulators, doctors and patients about OxyContin's risk of addiction.

The company ultimately agreed to pay some $600 million in fines, with three Purdue executives paying an additional $34.5 million. It was one of the largest amounts paid by a drug company in such a case--but it represents a just drop in the bucket when compared to Purdue's profits from OxyContin.

Overall, Purdue--and the billionaire Sackler family that controls the company--raked in $31 billion in profits from OxyContin since beginning the company's heavy marketing push around the drug in 1999.

In that same time, some 200,000 people have died both from overdoses related to OxyContin and other prescription opioids. Plus there has been a large spike in the use of heroin and other street-level opioids that followed when patients who could no longer get prescriptions turned to street drugs.

Today, the Sacklers are known for their large charitable contributions to various colleges, museums and other institutions. But their "charity" is the product of tremendous human suffering.

As Mike Moore, a former Mississippi attorney general who is helping bring litigation against Purdue and other pharmaceutical firms, told Britain's Guardian newspaper in February: "Greed is the main thing. The market for OxyContin should have been much, much smaller, but they wanted to have a $10 billion drug and they didn't tell the truth about their product."

SO THESE companies and the executives who run them should be held responsible for the misery they've caused. But it's a near certainty that the legislation Sanders is sponsoring won't pass--not only because of the current Republican control of both the U.S. House and Senate, but because of the enormous influence that the industry exerts on Republicans and Democrats through campaign contributions and lobbying.

According to the website OpenSecrets.org, for the 2016 election cycle, the pharmaceutical industry gave over $62 million to both parties in the form of contributions from individuals connected to the industry, PACs and "soft" money--45 percent went to Democrats, while 54 percent went to Republicans.

In 2017, Purdue Pharma alone spent more than $900,000 in lobbying individual members of Congress.

Purdue actually ranks relatively low on the list in terms of the money it doles out. Teva Pharmaceutical Industries, another opioid manufacturer, spent nearly $5.6 million in lobbying in 2017, while Allergan plc spent more than $3 million.

But all that pales in comparison to the Pharmaceutical Research & Manufacturers of America--the main industry lobbying group, which handed out nearly $26 million to various politicians in 2017.

Last year, Donald Trump's nominee to be the U.S. "drug czar"--Pennsylvania Republican Rep. Tom Marino--had to withdraw from consideration after an investigation by the Washington Post and 60 Minutes revealed found that legislation he sponsored in 2016 "effectively stripped the Drug Enforcement Administration of its most potent weapon against large drug companies suspected of spilling prescription narcotics onto the nation's streets."

According to the report, for years, Marino worked as the chief advocate to pass a law that:

was the crowning achievement of a multifaceted campaign by the drug industry to weaken aggressive DEA enforcement efforts against drug distribution companies that were supplying corrupt doctors and pharmacists who peddled narcotics to the black market. The industry worked behind the scenes with lobbyists and key members of Congress, pouring more than a million dollars into their election campaigns.

Not surprisingly, Mariano was one of those "key members of Congress" whose campaign coffers were well padded by the pharmaceutical industry. Of course, the overall amount the industry gave Marino pales in comparison to the amount it dished out to Hillary Clinton during the 2016 election cycle.

Clinton received $2.4 million from the industry--compared to Trump's relatively paltry $343,000.

In announcing his legislation, Bernie Sanders said: "At a time when local, state and federal governments are spending many billions of dollars a year dealing with the impact of the opioid epidemic, we must hold the pharmaceutical companies and executives that created the crisis accountable."

Sanders is right. Unfortunately, the industry has bought and paid for enough politicians in both parties that Sanders won't win this battle--not unless struggle from below grows strong enough to counteract the pressure on Washington from above.

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