State legislatures trying desperately to get their hands around a deadly nationwide opioid epidemic are fighting against the powerful forces of addiction and the economic realities of the drug trade. But that’s not all.

As outlined in a recent report from the Associated Press and the Center for Public Integrity, the pharmaceutical companies who helped create the epidemic are using their considerable clout to halt or weaken measures aimed at ending it. Even with a clear history of putting profits over public health, the companies’ money and tactics are proving to be little match for opponents, and for overburdened legislators.

From 2006 to 2015, manufacturers of prescription painkillers spent more than $880 million nationwide on lobbying and campaign contributions, more than 200 times the amount spent by opponents. The drugmakers employed an annual average of 1,350 lobbyists spread throughout the country, compared to eight from their opponents.

The money was spent in all 50 states against measures designed to stop the overprescription of painkillers, such as limiting the size of initial prescriptions to new patients and establishing strong prescription monitoring systems.

The companies’ obscene profits were also used to fund astroturf organizations that overstate the prevalence of chronic pain and the effectiveness of opioid pain medication in treating it, refocusing the debate on the sufferers of that condition, and away from the overdoses and rampant addiction linked to OxyContin, Vicodin and other medications like them.

If that doesn’t sound familiar, it should. It was these same companies pushing a similar narrative two decades ago that set off an explosion in painkiller prescriptions, convincing doctors and patients that these heavy drugs were necessary for relatively minor ailments.

In its drive to gain market share, Purdue Pharma, which produces OxyContin, misled the public about the drug’s risk of addiction.

In addition, according to a Los Angeles Times report, the company lied in its chief marketing claim, that OxyContin would relieve pain for 12 hours, which gave it an advantage over its competitors. (The company also frequently looked the other way when it realized so-called “pill mills” were selling extraordinary numbers of pills, many of which ended up in the hands of drug gangs.)

Purdue Pharma eventually was made to pay more than $600 million in fines for some of its misleading statements, but the harm was already done.

Sales of prescription opioids quadrupled from 1999 to 2010. Last year, 227 million prescriptions for opioid painkillers were written, one for 9 out of every 10 Americans, providing companies with $9.6 billion in sales. Purdue Pharma accounted for $2.4 billion of that total.

Now the industry is using that money to make sure the prescriptions don’t stop, and Maine is not immune.

To their credit, Gov. Paul LePage and lawmakers have created a strong monitoring system and initiated solid restrictions on prescriptions.

But last year, the Legislature passed an industry-drafted bill to require coverage for abuse-deterrent pills, a feature that is not as beneficial as it sounds.

Experts have questioned the effectiveness of abuse deterrents in stemming addiction, and the law will have the effect of extending patent protections for manufacturers, ensuring that they’ll profit well into the future, but lawmakers here and elsewhere have been sold on the industry’s questionable claims and slickly produced but slanted studies.

Those are the kinds of stories you can tell with billions of dollars in profits. But with 4 out of 5 new heroin users starting out on prescription pain medications, we can’t afford to listen anymore.


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