For months, the pharmaceutical industry’s consistent disregard of consumers and bad press has seemed like a setup that was missing a punchline. Critics of the industry have been consistently frustrated as we wait for the other shoe to drop.
These past few weeks, an avalanche of shoes poured down on the industry.
First, Ohio Attorney General and gubernatorial candidate Mike DeWine, who has filed suit against the industry for its malfeasance, but otherwise seemingly remained quiet, came out swinging an op-ed for the Toledo Blade.
“We believe evidence will show that [pharmaceutical companies] flooded the market with prescription opioids, such as Oxycontin and Percocet, and grossly misleading information about the risks and benefits of these drugs,” DeWine thundered. “It’s time for these pharmaceutical Goliaths to take responsibility for their actions and stop trying to deceive Ohio and America. What they’ve done is morally and legally wrong.”
Coming from a Republican candidate for office at a time when Republican leadership seems increasingly and inscrutably blinkered by Pharma, such a warning was vital and necessary.
But DeWine was far from alone. On August 11, the state of New Hampshire joined his crusade against the industry’s malfeasance by filing suit against Purdue Pharma, which you may know as the company behind Oxycontin itself. As the Stamford Advocate reported in explaining the specifics behind this damning lawsuit:
Sales representatives of Purdue made calls to more prescribers in New Hampshire than any other maker of branded opioids, comprising two of every three such calls in the state, according to the complaint. The company allegedly maintained a state sales force of four to six representatives who were each given the goal by the company of seeing six to seven prescribers per day. From 2013 through 2015, Purdue met with 256 prescribers in the state during which the salesperson provided a meal, coffee or other benefits to the prescriber, the complaint said.
Since then, South Carolina’s Alan Wilson has joined the same cause.
Coming as they did on the heels of President Trump’s declaration that the opioid crisis had become a “national emergency,” these news stories represent just the tip of an emerging spear that is being progressively used to gore Pharma for its complicity in creating the opioid epidemic. More interesting, however, is that rather than coming from Washington, the anti-Pharma crusade, which carries bipartisan support, is sprouting in America’s statehouses.
There’s no necessary reason why this should be. Legislators in Congress who are willing to buck Pharma run the gamut from right-wing firebrand Sen. Ted Cruz (R-TX) to left-wing darling Bernie Sanders (I-VT) in the Senate, and Rep. Gregg Harper (R-MS) to Rep. Peter Welch (D-VT) in the House. In fact, the latter two have introduced a bill that closes a loophole that is preventing rural hospitals from accessing discounts on expensive medicines. Nevertheless, apparently the control of Pharma over levers of financial support for members of Congress has remained too strong for such reformers to get much of a hearing at the federal level, even in a White House whose main occupant has shown himself more than happy to criticize the industry.
But not so in the states. As already mentioned, DeWine began the process of suing the industry over its role in contributing to the opioid crisis all the way back in May, joining what was then a cause only taken up by Mississippi’s Jim Hood, and for an unrelated issue. This cause would later be joined by Missouri’s Josh Hawley, and the aforementioned Alan Wilson, to name only Republicans. State-level publications, meanwhile, are calling the opioid crisis Big Pharma’s “Big Tobacco moment” — an ominous sign for the industry.
In the absence (so far) of any federal intervention, this kind of reversion to federalism for a redress of grievances is both right and proper. Nevertheless, even after these lawsuits end, something must be done to ensure that a crisis like this does not happen again. One only hopes that the process of discovery brought about by so many courageous State Attorneys General will at last prove to be the sunlight that forces Congress to disinfect the cancer growing at the heart of pharma.