Pain medication scandal

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.”

Investigative reporter Peter Whoriskey is digging out the details: Read Rising painkiller addiction shows damage from drugmakers’ role in shaping medical opinion – The Washington Post.

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.

About Gene Veith

Professor of Literature at Patrick Henry College, the Director of the Cranach Institute at Concordia Theological Seminary, a columnist for World Magazine and TableTalk, and the author of 18 books on different facets of Christianity & Culture.

  • SKPeterson

    I thought we had a stringent regulatory approval process that relies upon science and cold, hard, steely-eyed bureaucratic intervention to prevent this sort of thing. Wasn’t the drug regulatory oversight authority given to the FDA to some extent because of opiates?

  • SKPeterson

    I thought we had a stringent regulatory approval process that relies upon science and cold, hard, steely-eyed bureaucratic intervention to prevent this sort of thing. Wasn’t the drug regulatory oversight authority given to the FDA to some extent because of opiates?

  • http://enterthevein.wordpress.com J. Dean

    If you’re going to blame somebody, blame the FDA for not doing their jobs.

  • SteveD

    Kinda funny, since one could buy actual opium at a pharmacy back in the day. Seems keeping people from becoming addicted can’t be used as the excuse for removing it, now. . .

  • http://enterthevein.wordpress.com J. Dean

    If you’re going to blame somebody, blame the FDA for not doing their jobs.

  • SteveD

    Kinda funny, since one could buy actual opium at a pharmacy back in the day. Seems keeping people from becoming addicted can’t be used as the excuse for removing it, now. . .

  • Paul Reed

    Some of this has to do with liberal’s wacky definition of “rights”. They think that people have a “right” to take whatever drugs they want, regardless if a drug company spent millions in developing the drug or what the drug does to the person’s body. The government should even pay for your “right”. But apparently we don’t have the right to run our businesses the way we want, or have our second amendment rights.

  • Paul Reed

    Some of this has to do with liberal’s wacky definition of “rights”. They think that people have a “right” to take whatever drugs they want, regardless if a drug company spent millions in developing the drug or what the drug does to the person’s body. The government should even pay for your “right”. But apparently we don’t have the right to run our businesses the way we want, or have our second amendment rights.

  • SKPeterson

    Paul @ 4 – People should have the right – they do have the right, it is merely ignored by the government – to do whatever foolish thing they want with their own body. It is fundamentally their most personal piece of private property. The use and abuse of that property is as fundamental as the right to run a business as you see fit, not matter how foolish or wrong it might be, or to even abuse you 2nd Amendment rights by committing suicide. Now, if you argue that they are “taking” the drugs, I would agree that that is wrong, as taking without paying is “stealing.”

  • SKPeterson

    Paul @ 4 – People should have the right – they do have the right, it is merely ignored by the government – to do whatever foolish thing they want with their own body. It is fundamentally their most personal piece of private property. The use and abuse of that property is as fundamental as the right to run a business as you see fit, not matter how foolish or wrong it might be, or to even abuse you 2nd Amendment rights by committing suicide. Now, if you argue that they are “taking” the drugs, I would agree that that is wrong, as taking without paying is “stealing.”

  • Hanni

    The US taxpayer pays for 20% of drug research through govertment subsidies. who knew? I also don’t think there is any partisanship (liberal or right or center) when it comes to folks getting their pain killers, all think they have a right to their Lortabs, oxywhatevers. The govt. is stepping up oversight though on individual prescriptions, but the pain mills throughout the country (esp in the south) are unbelievaable. I take a drug that is regulated, and I could never get from my real doctor a refill before my correct dosage had run out. I take this because I have had serious ulcer problems (perforated once) and most drugs can cause bleeding in the stomach.

  • Hanni

    The US taxpayer pays for 20% of drug research through govertment subsidies. who knew? I also don’t think there is any partisanship (liberal or right or center) when it comes to folks getting their pain killers, all think they have a right to their Lortabs, oxywhatevers. The govt. is stepping up oversight though on individual prescriptions, but the pain mills throughout the country (esp in the south) are unbelievaable. I take a drug that is regulated, and I could never get from my real doctor a refill before my correct dosage had run out. I take this because I have had serious ulcer problems (perforated once) and most drugs can cause bleeding in the stomach.

  • kerner

    I still don’t understand why it is legal to make medication out of opium poppies but not legal to make it out of cannabis sataiva. With the same strict regulation of course.

  • kerner

    I still don’t understand why it is legal to make medication out of opium poppies but not legal to make it out of cannabis sataiva. With the same strict regulation of course.

  • Klasie Kraalogies

    Kerner -

    There was a series available on several of the Community-type networks (PBS / Knowledge Network etc) called Victorian Pharmacy. Apparently, during late Victorian times, they had some over-the-counter pain medication containing Morphine, raw opium and a Cannabis component. Yes, times have changed…. :)

  • Klasie Kraalogies

    Kerner -

    There was a series available on several of the Community-type networks (PBS / Knowledge Network etc) called Victorian Pharmacy. Apparently, during late Victorian times, they had some over-the-counter pain medication containing Morphine, raw opium and a Cannabis component. Yes, times have changed…. :)

  • Steve Bauer

    Drug companies put profits before people and jury-rig studies in their favor. Who knew?!

    If you’re going to blame somebody, blame the FDA for not doing their jobs.

    This sounds to me a lot like saying, in the context of criminals stealing and hurting people, “If you’re going to blame somebody, blame the police for not doing their jobs.”
    So let’s get rid of the FDA completely and then drug comglomerates will suddenly start bending over backwards to put the public’s good before their profits.
    Or we could fund the FDA properly so it could do its job.

  • Steve Bauer

    Drug companies put profits before people and jury-rig studies in their favor. Who knew?!

    If you’re going to blame somebody, blame the FDA for not doing their jobs.

    This sounds to me a lot like saying, in the context of criminals stealing and hurting people, “If you’re going to blame somebody, blame the police for not doing their jobs.”
    So let’s get rid of the FDA completely and then drug comglomerates will suddenly start bending over backwards to put the public’s good before their profits.
    Or we could fund the FDA properly so it could do its job.

  • Dr. Luther in the 21st Century

    What is news to me is the fact that pharma companies paid for these studies isn’t common knowledge. I thought everybody knew that by now. I also remember there was a lot of hope that by making synthetic opiates they could eliminate the addictive components, but it seems everybody had a collective brain fart because the very part that makes these drugs effective is also the part that makes them addictive.

    It also proves a maxim my food toxicology prof taught us, “Always check to see who paid for the study.”

  • Dr. Luther in the 21st Century

    What is news to me is the fact that pharma companies paid for these studies isn’t common knowledge. I thought everybody knew that by now. I also remember there was a lot of hope that by making synthetic opiates they could eliminate the addictive components, but it seems everybody had a collective brain fart because the very part that makes these drugs effective is also the part that makes them addictive.

    It also proves a maxim my food toxicology prof taught us, “Always check to see who paid for the study.”

  • Patrick kyle

    Sure the drug companies are our friends…. that’s why they made it a felony to re-import their meds from Canada or Mexico to avoid the price fixing scam the drug companies run in the US.

  • Patrick kyle

    Sure the drug companies are our friends…. that’s why they made it a felony to re-import their meds from Canada or Mexico to avoid the price fixing scam the drug companies run in the US.

  • http://enterthevein.wordpress.com J. Dean

    Steve @ 9,
    That’s not quite the same comparison. The FDA is supposed to evaluate these marketed drugs independently and then give them the final stamp of approval. When a drug is released by the market, the FDA by implication gives its OK to the drug. In effect, they are saying that they have independently reviewed the drug, found it to be safe, and therefore permit its distribution among the masses.

    Nobody is saying the pharma companies are off scot-free. But don’t pretend that the FDA is completely unaware of what’s going on here (as the media seems to portray them).

  • http://enterthevein.wordpress.com J. Dean

    Steve @ 9,
    That’s not quite the same comparison. The FDA is supposed to evaluate these marketed drugs independently and then give them the final stamp of approval. When a drug is released by the market, the FDA by implication gives its OK to the drug. In effect, they are saying that they have independently reviewed the drug, found it to be safe, and therefore permit its distribution among the masses.

    Nobody is saying the pharma companies are off scot-free. But don’t pretend that the FDA is completely unaware of what’s going on here (as the media seems to portray them).

  • kerner

    Steve @9:

    The FDA ia like all government regulatory bodies. It has been heavily influenced by the industry it is supposed to regulate. This takes place for a variaey of reasons, including those industries lobbying the branches of government that control its funding and the fact that many former government regulators, having learned how the system works from their professional experience, become emloyed by the private sector as consultants/advocates. These former regulators use not only their professional knowhow, but their professional relationships with those remaining as government regulators, to serve the best interests of their new employers. The general public has no such group of experienced professionals working for them.

    I don’t say this to condemn the regulation of food and medicine. Skeptical of government regulation though I may be, I see this as an area where public safety needs to be safeguarded. I’m just stating the facts as I see them.

  • kerner

    Steve @9:

    The FDA ia like all government regulatory bodies. It has been heavily influenced by the industry it is supposed to regulate. This takes place for a variaey of reasons, including those industries lobbying the branches of government that control its funding and the fact that many former government regulators, having learned how the system works from their professional experience, become emloyed by the private sector as consultants/advocates. These former regulators use not only their professional knowhow, but their professional relationships with those remaining as government regulators, to serve the best interests of their new employers. The general public has no such group of experienced professionals working for them.

    I don’t say this to condemn the regulation of food and medicine. Skeptical of government regulation though I may be, I see this as an area where public safety needs to be safeguarded. I’m just stating the facts as I see them.

  • Paul Reed

    @SKPeterson (5)

    “People should have the right – they do have the right, it is merely ignored by the government – to do whatever foolish thing they want with their own body. It is fundamentally their most personal piece of private property. The use and abuse of that property is as fundamental as the right to run a business as you see fit, not matter how foolish or wrong it might be”

    I hope you don’t also feel this way when it comes to abortion.

    But if we should have complete control over our bodies, why should it be illegal to:
    * take heroin?
    * sell your kidney?
    * prostitute yourself?

    This view about us having absolute control of our bodies is also not Biblical. Is God wrong when he says that: “A wife is not the master of her own body, but her husband is; in the same way a husband is not the master of his own body, but his wife is.”?

  • Paul Reed

    @SKPeterson (5)

    “People should have the right – they do have the right, it is merely ignored by the government – to do whatever foolish thing they want with their own body. It is fundamentally their most personal piece of private property. The use and abuse of that property is as fundamental as the right to run a business as you see fit, not matter how foolish or wrong it might be”

    I hope you don’t also feel this way when it comes to abortion.

    But if we should have complete control over our bodies, why should it be illegal to:
    * take heroin?
    * sell your kidney?
    * prostitute yourself?

    This view about us having absolute control of our bodies is also not Biblical. Is God wrong when he says that: “A wife is not the master of her own body, but her husband is; in the same way a husband is not the master of his own body, but his wife is.”?

  • Joe

    Paul – A couple of comments:

    Abortion is a red herring – that involves the destruction of someone else’s body. Just as I don’t have the right to punch you in the face (unprovoked), I don’t have the right to kill a baby.

    As to your list – make them all legal. (I think you’ll find SKP agrees with me on that).

    Your question about whether my body belongs to me vis`-a-vis my wife is also completely off point. It is completely different question of whether my body belongs to me vis`-a-vis the government. Admitting that my body is not my own (with regard to my wife or with regard to Christ) does not mean that the gov’t has the right to interfere with what I do with it.

  • Joe

    Paul – A couple of comments:

    Abortion is a red herring – that involves the destruction of someone else’s body. Just as I don’t have the right to punch you in the face (unprovoked), I don’t have the right to kill a baby.

    As to your list – make them all legal. (I think you’ll find SKP agrees with me on that).

    Your question about whether my body belongs to me vis`-a-vis my wife is also completely off point. It is completely different question of whether my body belongs to me vis`-a-vis the government. Admitting that my body is not my own (with regard to my wife or with regard to Christ) does not mean that the gov’t has the right to interfere with what I do with it.

  • Random Lutheran

    Keep in mind that part of this move came from the 90s movement toward better palliative care. At least as the story had it at the time, it had been standard practice to undermedicate folks because of the fear of addiction, and this left many who should have been properly dosed, especially in end-of-life situations, in great pain. I wish that legislators would listen more to medical personnel when crafting policy than they do to those who have interests in profiting from drugs on either end — those who sell them and those who profit from jailing those who use them. Then we might end up with sane drug policies and practices in this nation.

  • Random Lutheran

    Keep in mind that part of this move came from the 90s movement toward better palliative care. At least as the story had it at the time, it had been standard practice to undermedicate folks because of the fear of addiction, and this left many who should have been properly dosed, especially in end-of-life situations, in great pain. I wish that legislators would listen more to medical personnel when crafting policy than they do to those who have interests in profiting from drugs on either end — those who sell them and those who profit from jailing those who use them. Then we might end up with sane drug policies and practices in this nation.

  • fjsteve

    kerner #7, it is legal to make prescription medications out of cannabis. It’s done all the time. Marinol is prescribed to patients with AIDS and cancer as an appetite stimulant and anti-emetic. Though I don’t know about sativa specifically, versus indica.

  • fjsteve

    kerner #7, it is legal to make prescription medications out of cannabis. It’s done all the time. Marinol is prescribed to patients with AIDS and cancer as an appetite stimulant and anti-emetic. Though I don’t know about sativa specifically, versus indica.

  • William

    Is there a difference between a “right” to do whatever with body and the “freedom” to choose to do whatever?

  • William

    Is there a difference between a “right” to do whatever with body and the “freedom” to choose to do whatever?

  • SKPeterson

    William – I would say rights are internal, while freedoms are external. There is much to unpack in that statement, I admit.

    Paul @ 14. I agree completely with Joe @ 15.

  • SKPeterson

    William – I would say rights are internal, while freedoms are external. There is much to unpack in that statement, I admit.

    Paul @ 14. I agree completely with Joe @ 15.

  • Paul Reed

    @SKPeterson(19)
    @Joe(15)

    hmmmm. If I could show that allowing people full control of their bodies (prostitution, drug use, organ sale) would cause grievous harm to other people, would you join me in saying they should be illegal, or would you be more of the pro-abortion stance (my body, my choice, to hell with anybody else)?

  • Paul Reed

    @SKPeterson(19)
    @Joe(15)

    hmmmm. If I could show that allowing people full control of their bodies (prostitution, drug use, organ sale) would cause grievous harm to other people, would you join me in saying they should be illegal, or would you be more of the pro-abortion stance (my body, my choice, to hell with anybody else)?

  • Joe

    The degree to which our activities impacts others is the only legitimate place to start the debate over the propriety of gov’t regulation of the activity. I would add that unless the harm is actual physical harm directly caused by the activity, you will have a hard time convincing me that the power of the state needs to be focused on the prevention of the activity.

    For example, that people get killed in crimes related to drug use is not indicative of an inherent danger (to others) in the use of drugs. Rather, it is indicative of the inherent danger to society caused by making illegal a product that people want and that is in great supply but has an artificially high price due to its illegality.

  • Joe

    The degree to which our activities impacts others is the only legitimate place to start the debate over the propriety of gov’t regulation of the activity. I would add that unless the harm is actual physical harm directly caused by the activity, you will have a hard time convincing me that the power of the state needs to be focused on the prevention of the activity.

    For example, that people get killed in crimes related to drug use is not indicative of an inherent danger (to others) in the use of drugs. Rather, it is indicative of the inherent danger to society caused by making illegal a product that people want and that is in great supply but has an artificially high price due to its illegality.

  • William

    @SK Peterson(19)
    From a kingdom of the right perspective, does one have the right to commit suicide or the freedom to do so or both or neither? Also does the idea of “should/ought” or the opposite “should not” apply to “a right” or to “a freedom” or both or neither?

  • William

    @SK Peterson(19)
    From a kingdom of the right perspective, does one have the right to commit suicide or the freedom to do so or both or neither? Also does the idea of “should/ought” or the opposite “should not” apply to “a right” or to “a freedom” or both or neither?


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