Pharmaceutical opioid painkillers like Oxycontin, Percocet and Vicodin generated a whopping profit of over $9 billion last year. In the past, opioids were strictly used to treat severe short-term pain conditions like physical trauma or post-surgery pain, or, they were used for chronic pain from very serious illnesses like cancer. In the mid 1990’s it gradually became commonplace to prescribe opioids for a broader arena of pain management issues such as back pain and joint pain. Since that time deaths related to this type of medication have quadrupled. Last year the medication-related death toll was estimated to be around 19,000 individuals. This is the highest such figure in history.
In the wake of what is being referred to as an opioid addiction “epidemic,” The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) set out to release new guidelines for prescribing opioids back in January of 2015. The CDC’s proposal of these guidelines was met with hard resistance from the pharmaceutical industry and related pharma-funded groups.
The CDC’s potential restrictions urged that physicians should only be able to offer opioid painkillers as a last resort for common chronic pain ailments and only after non-narcotic pain relievers and physical therapy methods prove ineffective. Furthermore, the CDC would want doctors to limit their prescriptions to be for the smallest supply possible, such as three-days worth of medication or less.
Critics of these newly proposed guidelines went into an uproar with one group threatening to sue and another announcing plans to file formal complaints. After the controversy, implementing the CDC’s guidelines has been put on hold. Meanwhile people are still dying from overdoses. Currently, the delay of the approval of the CDC’s proposal has anti-addiction activist groups worried it will be lost in the shuffle entirely. Groups aligned with the pharmaceutical industry have spent the interim lobbying against the guidelines calling them “short-sighted,” and based upon, “low-quality evidence.” The pro-painkiller groups like The American Academy of Pain Management and the U.S. Pain Foundation have a more than comfy funding cushion provided by big pharma money. On the other side of the debate, anti-addiction groups have far less financial support and organization. Armed with vast capital, the pharmaceutical companies and their supporters appear to have the upper hand.
Dr. Robert Twillman, a representative of The American Academy of Pain Management, argues that the CDC neglected to make pain care supporters aware of what their guidelines would entail. This particular organization receives significant funding from Purdue Pharmaceuticals, the company that developed and manufactures Oxycontin. Purdue initially promoted their product, Oxycontin, as being less addictive than some other opioid medications. Later, Purdue paid over $600 million in fines after they plead guilty to misleading the public about the drug’s hazards and risks. Is this a serious chip in the structure of a multi-billion dollar a year industry, or does it just amount to public relations damage control? Some who oppose the CDC’s proposal are exclaiming the guidelines will prevent people from having access to powerful opioid painkillers altogether. “As a civilization we somehow managed to survive for 50,000 years without Oxycontin and I think we will continue to survive,” offered one supporter of the new CDC guidelines.