One of the biggest drug problems today is addiction to prescription pain medication like OxyContin, Vicodin, and Percocet. These are “opioids,” derived from natural or synthetic opium. They used to be prescribed for specific cases of acute pain, but back in the 1990s they began to be prescribed longer-term for chronic pain such as back problems. Most people who get addicted–from celebrities like Rush Limbaugh to untold numbers of coal miners and other physical laborers–got their start from legitimate medical prescriptions for chronic pain.
Doctors started prescribing the opioids for chronic conditions because of research published in the New England Journal of Medicine and other key medical journals that said the drugs posted only “a minimal risk of addiction.”
But it’s coming out now that those scientific studies were not only sponsored by the pharmaceutical companies that sold the drug, but they also systematically failed to consider withdrawal symptoms in the patients they studied. One participant in the studies now confesses that they were “trying to create a narrative so that the primary care audience would . . . feel more comfortable about opioids.”
Opium is addictive! Who knew? Only 19th century literature fans who know their de Quincy and their Coleridge. Scientific studies that maintain the contrary should have provoked suspicion.
I think pharmaceutical companies have been unfairly demonized–they are even showing up as stock villains in television and films–since their products do great good. New drugs require huge investments and the federal approval process demands expensive testing. Who else can pay for that? That drug companies paid for a study does not necessarily invalidate it. Still, scientific research is not always as objective as it appears. The appearance of commercial bias here, though, in drugs that have become so widely prescribed and that can do so much harm is disturbing.