Big Pharma: How does it impact addiction?

Transparency is lacking between pharmaceutical companies and doctors who are prescribing opioids

An overview of how pharmaceutical companies play an important role in the opioid epidemic. Created by: Casey Semenza

Pharma at a Glance

Pharma, which is a term used to describe the pharmaceutical industry, works to discover, create and develop medicines that provide integral services and treatments for patients.  Pharmaceutical science has been used since ancient times when most medicines were derived from plants and animals.  In 1546, the first pharmacopoeia was formed which listed directions for all the drugs and chemicals used during that time.  By 1841, the Pharmaceutical Society of Great Britain was created, providing the education and training of pharmacists to ensure the safety of patients.  Even today there are multiple societies that oversee the safety of every step in the process of creating new pharmaceuticals.  As the years passed, more and more developments in the industry followed.  Soon people were cured of smallpox, polio was eradicated and common diseases were now better managed.  

But pharma hasn’t always been a welcoming industry for this country.  Soon priorities started shifting for those in the pharmaceutical industry.  Bringing a new drug onto the market is now estimated to cost $1 billion dollars, making pharma more concerned with developing drugs that many people can take versus specific drugs that only a small population of people need.  This creates a laundry list of problems for people who have rarer diseases that require certain medications.  But because these medicines can take up to 15 years to develop, people find themselves in a precarious situation.  

Another problem pharmaceutical companies have created as a result of so many different medicines is the unintended side effects of medications.   Addiction to medications have sometimes become one of the side effects. 

Betty Jean Swartz, vice president of U.S. market access at Celgene, an American biotechnology company, reflects on her years in the industry and the impacts of addiction.

“It is not a socioeconomic thing and I think that when I went into the pharmaceutical industry — most of us that go in there start with a medical background that you want to help patients and you want to make a difference,” Swartz said. “I had no idea about how much the pain medicines and the epidemic of addiction really was until working for a company that actually made opioid medication and then consequently working for another company that made a product to reverse an opioid episode if someone were to overdose.”

Could big pharma be advertising addiction to us with these new medications constantly appearing on the market to cure yet another ailment?  Some doctors were prescribing opioids without proper knowledge of the addictive properties associated with it.  Sixty percent of fatal overdoses in 2010 involved pharmaceutical drugs such as oxycodone and hydrocodone. In the last 10 years, the percentage of people over 60 who take five or more medications has jumped from 22 to 37 percent.   This is what also leads to drug abuse.  “Hopefully there will be alternative drugs in the future that can alleviate pain, but maybe don’t have the addictive properties of some of these other products,” Swartz said.

Written by: Casey Semenza

Pharma Through the Years

A brief history of how pharmaceutical companies have played a major role in addiction. Created by: Casey Semenza