Major pharmaceutical companies are dead set on protecting the billions in profits they earn from opioid painkillers, and U.S. politicians won't stop them because they're in the pockets of those drug companies, a former high-ranking DEA officer says.
Until last year, Joseph Rannazzisi was in charge of the DEA's efforts to prevent prescription drug abuse. Drug companies and the lobbying groups they fund have a "stranglehold" on Congress, Rannazzisi told The Guardian, and have used their outsized influence over lawmakers to preserve their $24 billion-a-year painkiller business.
Congress, Rannazzisi said, has sided with the drugmakers and their hefty donations instead of legislating in the interests of Americans who have become addicted to prescription opioid painkillers in epidemic numbers.
While Americans are 5 percent of the world's population, they consume about 80 percent of opioid painkillers manufactured by pharmaceutical companies, according to an August report by CNBC that quoted market analysts and medical experts.
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For context, American pharmacies filled more than 300 million prescriptions for opioid painkillers in 2015 alone, the report said. In a nation of 319 million people, that's almost one prescription for every man, woman and child in the country.
Pharmaceutical companies have spent extraordinary amounts of money to protect that captive market, critics say. The Pain Care Forum, a lobbyist group co-founded by an executive of OxyContin maker Purdue Pharma, has spent $740 million lobbying federal and state governments over the past decade, according to the Center for Public Integrity.
“Congress would rather listen to people who had a profit motive rather than a public health and safety motive,” said Rannazzisi. “As long as the industry has this stranglehold through lobbyists, nothing’s going to change.”
Rannazzisi pointed to the passing of the Comprehensive Addiction and Recovery Act (CARA) in July. The new law encouraged the expansion of redirection programs -- sending addicts to recovery instead of jail or prison -- and supported medication-assisted treatment for addicts. It also supported the widespread use of naloxone, or NARCAN -- a drug that can combat overdoses -- by first responders like paramedics and firefighters.
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But CARA didn't include any funding to make those steps possible, and congressional Republicans blocked efforts to fund the bill.
The Drug Policy Alliance's Grant Smith said that while his organization welcomes legislative efforts to help fight the opioid addiction epidemic, congress "must deliver on promises to fully fund CARA if we are to realize its potential."
President Barack Obama was more direct in his criticism after signing the act into law in July. He blamed Republicans -- who receive more cash from pharmaceutical companies than their Democratic counterparts -- for blocking efforts to attach more than $900 million in funding to CARA.
"Given the scope of this crisis, some action is better than none," Obama said at the time. "However, I am deeply disappointed that Republicans failed to provide any real resources for those seeking addiction treatment to get the care that they need."
There were more than 25,000 deaths attributed to painkiller overdoses in 2014, according to the Centers for Disease Control, but that number doesn't include the estimated 11,000 deaths from heroin overdoses in the same year. As it becomes more difficult for addicts to obtain prescription painkillers, many turn to heroin to maintain their habit, and heroin overdoses have increased five-fold in only a decade, the CDC data shows.
In addition to blasting lawmakers for taking money from pharmaceutical companies, Rannazzisi said some of those same congressmen and senators are publicly casting themselves as crusaders against big pharma and the opioid industry.
“These congressmen and senators who are using this because they are up for re-election, it’s a sham," Rannazzisi told The Guardian. "The congressmen and senators who are championing this fight, the ones who really believe in what they’re doing, their voices are drowned out because the industry has too much influence."