Propaganda in the Pharmaceutical Industry
Identifying Trends of Deception
The pharmaceutical industry is typically seen as a research driven industry that is meant to heal ailments, and save lives. This is the way that this industry shows itself through advertisements, and through the doctors who prescribe them. However, the pharmaceutical industry is filled with deception and lies. The typical perception of the term propaganda leads to thoughts of political campaigns, the Nazi regime, and terror. The pharmaceutical industry utilizes propaganda in many different forms, creating a false perception of enhancing the well being of the general public. While many drugs and medicines do good for those who are in need, this industry has preyed on the well-being of some of the most vulnerable citizens. Throughout this essay, we will be examining different ways that the pharmaceutical industry manipulates the thoughts of the public.
Case 1: Misrepresentation of Opioids
Perhaps one of the most dangerous things a pharmaceutical company could do, is misinform the users how addictive or dangerous a medicine or treatment is. One recent example leads to the company Purdue Pharma, the company who produces the highly addictive pain management drug, Oxycodone. Oxycodone is a slow-release tablet form of morphine. Opioids, specifically Oxycodone, were originally used primarily for hospitalized cancer patients, and end-of-life care.
Purdue Pharma knowingly misinformed doctors, who in turn then misinformed patients about the possible risks surrounding the use of Oxycodone. Purdue Pharma persuaded doctors aggressively, by, among other things, offering free trips to various seminars, along with assigning them with paid speaking engagements. These doctors were marketing Oxycodone as a “smooth and sustained pain control, day and night” according to Purdue Pharma. The vast mistreatment of Oxycodone through their use of propaganda and over-prescription of this drug lead to a huge increase in the companies profits, meaning that the company purposely misrepresented their drug in pursuit of their own personal benefit.
According to a report by Esquire titled “The Secretive Family making Billions from the Opioid Crisis”, over two hundred thousand people in the United States have died directly from overdoses of Oxycodone, and other prescription painkiller. According to the Centers for Disease Control, over fifty-three thousand Americans died from opioid overdoses in 2016. Many of these overdoses begin with individuals who were originally prescribed a pain management medication, such as Oxycodone, then became addicted to the pill and having to switch to a much cheaper alternative, such as heroin.
While the opioid epidemic is still in full swing, progress is being made towards a solution. In 2007, three executives at Purdue Pharma pleaded guilty to criminal charges for misleading regulators, doctors, and patients about Oxycodones addictiveness. Purdue Pharma ended up having to pay $600 Million in fines to resolve various criminal charges for misbranding the drug through the use of propaganda to mislead doctors and patients. While the fine was important, it seems to be a minimal fine for the amount of money being brought in by the company for assisting in creating the opioid epidemic in pursuit of personal benefits. The Trump Administration has made the opioid epidemic a huge priority. Donald Trump’s Commission on Combating Drug Addiction and the Opioid Crisis, which is led by New Jersey governor Chris Christie, made a shocking comparison, when he stated that opioids were killing 142 Americans every single day. He then stated that the epidemic equates to a September 11th attack, every three weeks.
One of the reason the opioid crisis continues to rise can be attributed to the misdirection of funds and misplaced frustration. In his speech at an event last March at Manchester Community College while discussing his plans for the opioid epidemic, Donald Trump shifts the conversation and responsibility from the pharmaceutical industry to drug dealers. According to a breakdown report from Vice News “Trump unveils plan to end opioid crisis with an ad campaign”, President Trump says “If we don’t get tough on drug dealers, we’re wasting our time… and that toughness includes the death penalty. Some of these drug dealers will kill thousands of people, thousands of people, and destroy many more lives than that.” Although, giving drug dealers the death penalty sounds like a viable solution to President Trump, that would not fix the solution.
Since in a report by the Vox “Want to understand how big pharma helped create the opioid epidemic?” and Annual Review of Public Health’s “The Prescription Opioid and Heroin Crisis: A Public Health Approach to an Epidemic of Addiction”, it mentions that the increase sales of opioids has a direct correlation to the opioid overdoses and drug treatment admissions. This is a clear example of Donald Trump trying to mislead his audience into believing that opioid crisis is a result of drug dealers rather than pharmaceutical companies. However, this is not the first time the American public has been misinformed about opioids and certainly not its first epidemic.
America’s first opioid epidemic crisis can be traced back to the late nineteenth century and there were many underlying reasons that caused it. According to the Smithsonian’s “How Advertising Shaped the First Opioid Epidemic”, since regulations then were relatively loose, the use of morphine was generously used to treat all sorts of ailments from wounds inflicted from war, constipation to menstrual cramps. In the report David Courtwright, a historian of drug use and policy at the University of North Florida, says that middle aged white women from the upper or middle class had the most rates of addictions since they were kind of audience that seeked doctors with the latest tools. Once the pharmaceutical industry took notice, they became to marketed it to doctors via advertisement in medical journals, pamphlets and other various papers. Due to the influence from pharmaceutical companies physicians were prescribing morphine for just about any illness. Ultimately, by the late 1890s, there were about 150,000 “medical addicts”, “those addicted through morphine or some other prescribed opiate rather than through recreational use such as smoking opium” or in other words about 1 in 200 Americans were addicts.
However, since pharmaceutical companies did not market their message or product to patient but rather physicians they were not ultimately seen as responsible for the opioid crisis, which is one drastic way in which both opioids epidemic differ since today pharmaceutical companies tend to use direct to consumer strategies whenever possible. Luckily, around the height of it, physicians noticed severity of the opioid epidemic slowly started to limit the overuse of opiates. One of the reasons for this was doctors gained more knowledge on the side effects and there was also introduction of more technology in the field. This is another aspect in which both epidemic vary because it was unclear if physicians knew that they were misinforming patients since they did not have the proper tools to properly diagnosed patients. They also had limit choices in medication. While doctors and physicians today have seemingly an abundance of tools and resources today, therefore should not really need to prescribe such a strong painkillers. However, no matter how both epidemic differ one thing that is true is that they were both caused by over prescribing painkillers.
Case 2: Political Lobbying
Another form of propaganda that is utilized by large pharmaceutical corporations is lobbying with government officials. It is no secret that pharmaceutical companies donate large amounts of money to government officials in order to keep things quiet, or lobby for what benefits the company. According to the United State Senate’s Office of Public Records, various pharmaceutical research and manufacturing companies have donated over $2.5 Billions dollars to lobby with, and fund various members of Congress. In addition, a staggering 9 out of 10 members of the House of Representatives, and all but three of the United States’ 100 senators have taken some form of donation from a pharmaceutical corporation. These companies contribute to various political campaigns, seeking to affect votes on legislation. These votes, coming from appointed officials in the United States, are being swung by massive pharmaceutical corporations.
These large pharmaceutical corporations lobby with political figures in order to keep their drug prices high, and maintain or gain as much profit as possible. For example, President George W. Bush created the Federal Prescription Drug program for seniors in 2003. Various companies involved in the pharmaceutical industry spent over $116 million lobbying with politicians to ban Medicare from negotiating better prices for the drugs (Durden, 2003). It is estimated that $90 billion a year could have been saved on prescriptions, had this been allowed.
In regards to the opioid crisis, lobbying from pharmaceutical companies really influenced the extent of epidemic. According the Guardian’s “How Big Pharma’s Money and its Politicians feed the US opioid crisis”, Chris McGreal writes “pharmaceutical industry poured resources into attempting to place blame for the crisis on the millions who have became addicted instead of on the mass prescribing of powerful opioids”, in other words completely attacking their opponents instead of admitting guilt. In addition, McGreal further elaborates on how pharmaceutical companies then try to evoke sympathy for their cause by reminding how many people who actually need it for chronic pain will be deprived. Although pharmaceutical companies do pay millions to government officials, lobbyists still tend to use basic forms of propaganda to get their audience on their side.
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