Tuesday, December 20, 2016

Opioids and other pharmaceuticals are the tip of the iceberg: It's the profit, stupid!

The NPR program “Fresh Air”, with Terry Gross, had Anna Lembke, MD as a guest on December 15, 2016. Dr. Lembke is the author of the recent book “Drug Dealer, MD”, in which she apparently (per the discussion on air; I have not read it) implicates physicians and pharmaceutical companies in the widely discussed “opioid epidemic”. Dr. Lembke is a Stanford psychiatrist and director of the addiction medicine fellowship there, and she is able to articulately describe what is known and what is not about the neurological impact of opiates and opioids on the brain. One important point she makes is that continued use of opioids causes tolerance and a need for higher doses; in addition she describes how chronic use of opioids causes a pain syndrome of its own (decreased tolerance to pain) in some people, and how weaning them off opioids can actually decrease or eliminate their pain.

Her key issue, however, is that the epidemic of opioid use was orchestrated by the pharmaceutical manufacturers of opioid analgesics, who heavily promoted them, created the perception among doctors and the public that physicians were heartlessly undertreating the pain that their patients were in, and hooked in (mostly) well-meaning doctors to become, in essence, their pushers (“Drug Dealer, MD”) while they made huge profits. And continue to do so. And, as the reaction to this epidemic begins to form, continues to promote new syndromes that require treatment with their drugs.

An example of this is “OIC”, opioid-induced constipation, which made its first big appearance during the Super Bowl of 2016. The commercial left it a vaguely mysterious ailment, but it is a real one. Of course, the commercial was a prelude to an advertising campaign, in this case for Movantik ®, a partial opioid antagonist manufactured by a collaboration between AstraZeneca and Daiichi Sankyo designed to treat this condition. Constipation, in fact, is the only side effect of opioids that does not decrease with continued use, so as a person uses higher and higher doses of the opioids to try to control their pain, their constipation gets worse and worse, sometimes requiring surgery and occasionally death from a ruptured colon. My reaction, while understanding we would soon see a drug for this condition promoted, was that it was a cynical and disturbing attempt to “normalize” opioid addiction. “Oh, you have this problem? Well, it’s not just you! LOTS of people have OIC!” It turns out that I was not the only one with this reaction; Ahiza Garcia on in a piece on CNN Money called “Super Bowl drug ad sparks big backlash”, quotes Dr. Andrew Kolodny, executive director of Physicians for Responsible Opioid Prescribing: "It's very disturbing to see an ad like that. It's normalizing the chronic use of opioids, which aren't demonstrated to be safe over the long term.”

Of course the greed and anti-social behavior of pharmaceutical manufacturers is neither new nor is it going away. Their efforts to use doctors and exploit the public as much as they can possibly get away with in pursuit of exorbitant profits continues to generate news, and occasionally, reaction by states. We have all heard about the huge price increase in Daraprim ® by Martin Shkreli and Turing (Drug prices and corporate greed: there may be limits to our gullibility, September 27, 2015) and Epi-Pen® by Heather Bresch and Mylan (Epi-Pen® and Predatory Pricing: You thought our health system was designed for people’s health?, September 3, 2016) and maybe thought that this publicity would rein in further abuses. But not so. Reuters just reported in “US states sue Mylan, Teva, others for fixing drug prices” that “Twenty states filed a lawsuit Thursday against Mylan NV (MYL.O), Teva Pharmaceuticals (TEVA.TA) and four other generic drug makers, saying they conspired…on pricing of two common generic drugs, according to a copy of the complaint.” Lest you think that this conspiracy is just preventing these companies from being undercut by each other, we are talking fantastic price increases for common and necessary drugs. “The drugs involved in Thursday's lawsuit include the delayed-release version of a common antibiotic, doxycycline hyclate; and glyburide, an older drug used to treat diabetes. Doxycycline, for example, rose from $20 for 500 tablets to $1,849 between October 2013 and May 2014, according to Senator Amy Klobuchar, a Minnesota Democrat who had been pressing for action on high drug prices.” In case you missed it, this is a 9245% increase in the price of doxycycline! And it may well be up to the states to bring such legal action, since there is little reason to think that the federal government, led by President-elect Trump and his corporate cabinet, along with the Republican-dominated Congress, will be doing anything about it.

Which, of course, is the core problem, and has been for a long time. Corporate profit has become the be all and end all of US policy. Anything that increases corporate profit is seen as good. This certainly includes subterfuge, cheating, exploitation, and corruption. While this has long been the case, it is likely to increase under the Trump administration, with its depressing panoply of corporate exploiters and climate change deniers. We are likely to see not only tolerance of encouragement and celebration of such outrageous excesses. Of course, it is fine to make a profit, but that profit should be reasonable and honest; it should not be highway robbery, generated by dishonesty, exploitation, and trampling others.

The pharmaceutical company activities cited about are the result of an attitude that “if we can make some money honestly, look how much more we can make if we are corrupt!” that pervades virtually every industry, from fossil fuels (see Rex Tillerson, the Exxon CEO who is Trump’s nominee for Secretary of State) to financial services. After campaigning against Goldman Sachs, the largest investment bank, and its ties to Hillary Clinton (“I know the guys at Goldman Sachs. They have total, total control over [Cruz]," Trump said. "Just like they have total control over Hillary Clinton"), Trump has named at least four current and past Goldman execs to cabinet-level positions, including its #2, Gary Cohn, as director of the National Economic Council. And, should anyone harbor any illusion that the survival of Goldman in the face of the collapse of rivals Bear Stearns, Merrill Lynch, and Lehman Brothers has anything to do with their being more honest or less evil, less likely to have indulged in “the Big Short” and transferred all their toxic investments to their own clients, read the recent piece by Matt Taibbi in Rolling Stone, The Vampire Squid occupies Trump’s White House”.

Speaking of Rex Tillerson, his close ties to Russia and Vladimir Putin are seen (by the President-elect) as major qualifications for Secretary of State. In this context, the New York Times Op-Ed by Andrew Rosenthal from December 15, 2016, “To understand Trump, learn Russian”. Rosenthal notes that Russian has two words for “truth”:
The word for truth in Russian that most Americans know is “pravda” — the truth that seems evident on the surface. It’s subjective and infinitely malleable....But the real truth, the underlying, cosmic, unshakable truth of things is called “istina” in Russian. You can fiddle with the pravda all you want, but you can’t change the istina.

The pravda will change a lot with the new administration. Fossil fuel extraction is all good, climate change is a hoax, public education is bad, getting rid of the ACA will improve access to healthcare, immigrants are the problem, Putin is good, and gays and transgender people have no rights. That putting foxes in charge of the henhouse makes sense, and that having corporate titans in direct rather than indirect control of government will benefit us all. But the growth in the gap between the wealthiest and the rest of the people has grown under both Republican and Democratic administrations and anger at it was actually one of the drivers of the vote for Trump.

The istina, though, is that making the wealthiest wealthier and destroying the earth in the process is not the answer. Attention to the common good, for all of us, is the only thing that will move us forward, as a society and as a world.

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