With the United States caught in the asphyxiating grip of an opioid addiction epidemic that is expected to kill over 60 thousand Americans this year, evidence is growing that the pharma industry is seeking to maximize its profiteering from the situation. According to a disturbing report from ProPublica, the biopharmaceutical company Alkermes has been marketing its $1,000 a shot opioid addiction injection, Vivitrol, directly to judges. As a result, by presenting opioid addicts with the stark choice of either going to jail or joining an injection program, drug courts have helped annual sales of Vivitrol rise by almost 700 percent since 2011, reaching a total of $209 million in 2016.
Fueled by the rise of prescription drugs such as fentanyl, a synthetic opioid painkiller that is 50 to 100 times more powerful than morphine, as well as its deadly analogues such as carfentanil, a chemical so lethal in miniscule amounts that it is said to present a potential terrorism threat, drug overdose deaths are now occurring at an average of one every ten minutes in the United States. Accordingly, with over 2 million Americans estimated to be dependent on opioids, switching a user’s dependency from one drug to another is seen by the pharma industry as a highly profitable business opportunity. Alkermes projects that income from Vivitrol injections will reach $800 million by 2020, with some estimates suggesting the drug could be worth as much as $1 billion a year by 2021.
There seems little doubt that more suits will follow. In the state of Connecticut, the town of Tolland is reported to be examining the possibility of joining a suit the city of Waterbury plans to file. In all, a total of 10 towns in the Connecticut area are believed to be considering getting involved. A New York law firm is said to be willing to represent the municipalities for free.
Might it lobby insurance companies to put pressure on patients with heart disease to take statin drugs, at threat of having their health or life insurance policies revoked? Could it push for cancer patients to lose their insurance if they refuse to have chemotherapy? Before you dismiss these scenarios as outlandish, keep in mind that in some situations pharmaceutical drug treatments can already be enforced against an individual’s will. Examples include children and young people diagnosed with cancer or other serious diseases; patients deemed to be suffering from mental illness; and people judged to be incapable of understanding the consequences of their actions or decisions. Clearly, if Alkermes has stooped to lobbying the criminal justice system for profit, we have to assume the pharma industry is capable of lobbying almost anyone for almost anything.
Ultimately, however, whatever tactics the pharma industry employs, one thing is now certain: by earning themselves billions of dollars from marketing heavily addictive narcotic painkillers while pretending they were safe for long-term use, drug companies have demonstrated that they are morally bankrupt and ruthlessly driven by profit. So while suing the pharma industry for the damage caused by opioids is an important step, the long-term goal has to be replacing synthetic drug-based medicine with a preventive system of healthcare based on scientifically proven natural approaches. For until this is achieved, human health will continue to be held to ransom by the ‘business with disease’.