Opioid Makers Calculate The Business Of Addiction

Aug 29, 2017

Opioids are a $10 billion industry for pharmaceutical companies. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, from 1999 to 2014, more than 165,000 persons died from overdose related to opioid pain medication in the United States. Today, thousands more are struggling with drug dependency that started with opioids given to them by doctors.

A team of journalists with the Center for Public Integrity has been investigating how drug makers are profiting from the opioid epidemic.  

As part of our ongoing series about Georgia’s opioid crisis, reporter Liz Essley Whyte joined Rickey Bevington in the studio to discuss her findings.  

Interview Highlights

On drug companies responding to the crisis with more expensive drugs:  

One of the things we looked at in our reporting was the type of opioid that was supposed to be harder to abuse. In recent years, more and more doctors have been encouraged to prescribe what are called “abuse-deterrent” opioids. These drugs are supposed to be harder to misuse. They also happen to make the drug company more money. They are more lucrative. They were something that came about because of the crisis and now drug companies are profiting off of them.

On drug companies misleading doctors who then mislead patients:  

Experts say there's no real proof that these drugs help people stay away from addiction. But doctors have a false impression of how they work and are more likely to tell patients that they're not as addictive.

On drug companies’ political power in Georgia:

Georgia, like a lot of states, has seen more and more people die from drug overdoses. The number of people dying from drugs went up 45 percent from 2006 to 2014. That decade had 9,000 plus people die from drugs, a lot of those from opioids or heroin. That's partly fueled by a rash of overprescribing and doctors just handing out too many of these pills. In 2015, Georgia saw .77 opioid prescriptions per person. That means almost one prescription for every single person in Georgia.

The popularity of these drugs is backed up in many places by political power of their makers. In Georgia, opioid makers and their allies gave $1.3 million from 2006 to 2014 to Georgia politicians and political parties. They also had an average of 41 lobbyists in the Georgia state house every year to back up their drugs and vouch for bills that supported their drugs.

Overall contributions of opioid makers and their allies to Georgia candidates and parties from 2006 through 2014.
Credit Source: National Institute on Money in State Politics / Jessica Gurell/GPB

On the Centers for Disease Control’s finding that many pain sufferers don’t need opioids:

I think you're starting to see the ship gradually change course on this. The reason it got this way was for a long time these drugs were heavily marketed. In addition, we found the pharmaceutical companies went state by state and passed laws in the 1990's and later to encourage doctors to use opioids. They encouraged the medical community to believe that pain was something that did not need to go untreated and that one of the first lines of defense against pain could be a prescription opioid. Doctors got the wrong impression.

Now, doctors are starting to realize this is a real crisis and we need to not be so quick to hand opioids out. In a lot of cases the damage is already done. In a lot of cases the people who got addicted to heroin started on prescription opioids. 

In 2015, the American Medical Association, which represents the nation's medical doctors, formed a task force to combat opioid abuse. Doctors have been on the front lines of states' prescription drug monitoring programs to track opioid prescriptions.