Today’s nationwide epidemic of opiate addiction was given birth in part by doctors who with the best of intentions wanted to help patients in pain, and by drug companies who said they had just the remedy — long-lasting, effective painkillers with none of the addictive qualities of their predecessors.

Hundreds of millions of prescriptions later, we know all three of those claims to be false. Medications such as OxyContin have proved ineffective for the kind of chronic pain for which they are most often prescribed, and they have been widely successful at fostering addiction, setting the stage for the cheap and potent heroin that has devastated communities in every corner of the country.

Still, the drug companies who own these pain medications continue to push the old narrative, and still they are finding friendly doctors to help them push it.

And while it’s not surprising that companies are repeating what has worked when it comes to selling their products, it’s troubling that some doctors are so willing to go along.

Federal data analyzed by the Maine Sunday Telegram show that while policymakers and health and law enforcement officials were contending with an escalating opioid crisis, drug companies selling opioids were increasing payments and visits to Maine doctors. One doctor, Doug Jorgensen of Manchester, received the bulk of the payments, $42,522 from August 2013 to December 2015. Another received more than $13,000, while others received a few hundred dollars each.

These sorts of payments are legal, but they are discouraged by the Maine Medical Association and criticized by medical ethicists as a clear conflict of interest. Even small payments, they say, can affect — subconsciously even — what a doctor ultimately prescribes, a decision that should be guided by medical knowledge and patient needs, not whether a pharmaceutical company bought a doctor dinner.

The report follows a Los Angeles Times investigation showing how Purdue Pharma, the company behind OxyContin, is reacting to a 40 percent drop in prescriptions for that drug since 2010. It should sound familiar.

Purdue, the Times reports, is trying to open new markets across the globe, using paid-off doctors to pitch the same script it used in the U.S., overselling the benefits and downplaying the risks of opiate medication. Again, they are telling patients to get assessed for chronic pain, and again they are telling doctors that drugs like OxyContin have little downside if used properly.

Those countries will find out soon what most Americans know now. There is “insufficient evidence” to show that opiate painkillers work more than three months, yet up to 24 percent of long-term users become addicted, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Many of those who become addicted will eventually turn to heroin.

We shouldn’t have to see this story play out again, either in another country or with more patients here at home. But the billions made through pain medications have given pharmaceutical companies enormous clout, and as long as some cynical members of the medical community help peddle their false narrative, were in for more addiction, and, ironically, more pain.


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