Opioid companies spend eight times more on lobbying than the gun freaks
"They're the merchants of death."
That phrase, "merchants of death," was famously used in the movie "Thank You For Smoking," about lobbyists for tobacco, firearms and alcohol, who push plagues in pursuit of profit.
And "merchants of death" is what Dr. Andrew Kolodny, an addiction expert and head of the group Physicians for Responsible Opioid Prescribing calls the real-life pharma companies that make prescription opioid painkillers like Vicodin and OxyContin.
Yet, although opioids and guns are equally deadly, opioid lobbyists spend way, way more money than the gun guys to keep their dangerous products in people’s hands.
Eight times more, to be exact.
According to an analysis by the Associated Press, companies that make prescription painkillers spent $880 million on lobbying between 2006 and 2015. Gun makers spent nothing close to that.
"They're the bad guys," said Dr. Kolodny. "They are responsible for the worst drug addiction epidemic in the history of this country." It's as if a 737 crashed every other day.
A spokesman for the drug company Purdue told me that the comparison of lobbying dollars between drug makers and gun makers isn’t necessarily accurate. Many of those companies lobby for all kinds of drugs, not just opioids. Purdue, for instance, also makes an antiseptic and a laxative.
It's a good point. Still, flush with drug companies' cash, lawmakers across the country are mostly letting the opioid epidemic run its deadly course, shooting down laws that would restrict access to the drugs or keep scripts limited, and sponsoring bills to expand access, like to workers compensation patients.
"They don't care if they kill people," Dr. Kolodny said. He singled out Purdue Pharmaceuticals as the worst of the worst. They make OxyContin, fentanyl and codeine. In 2007, executives there pled guilty to misleading the public about OxyContin's addictive nature and paid $600 million in fines. This year, a city in Washington sued Purdue, arguing that the opioid epidemic in their city was the company's fault.
Meanwhile, the founders of Purdue have become one of the wealthiest families in the country.
In a statement emailed to me, Purdue Pharmaceuticals argued that their drugs are hardly the biggest killers.
"OxyContin accounts for less than 2 percent of opioid pain prescriptions," the statement said. Meanwhile, "we have led the industry in developing abuse-deterrent technology." The company did make OxyContin harder to crush or dissolve to be snorted or injected.
Efforts like that aren't slowing the toll of suffering much, though. I've seen this with my own eyes, as an EMT riding around on an ambulance in Boulder. I've never seen a gunshot wound. But I've seen a stream of people sick from opioids or heroin. These addicts often look sad and messy, are often desperate for more drugs and are willing to lie to get them. Kids lose parents. The cartels constantly invent deadly new versions of their products. Emergency responders pick up the pieces.
Shannon Sovndal, a doctor in the emergency room at Boulder Community Hospital, sees opioid overdoses stream through the doors in a way gunshot victims don't. "That might be different in a place like Detroit," Dr. Sovndal cautions. In Boulder, though, opioids are a much bigger problem.
The solution to opioid addiction, though, isn't passing a new law, Sovndal believes. "I think more education about drugs is what's needed," he said.
Whether the next step is more laws or more education, anti-opioid lobbyists like Dr. Kolodny don't have much firepower in this fight. Anti-opioid groups like his were outspent by pro-opioid groups by 20,000 percent, one estimate found.
In light of all this, Dr. Kolodny isn't hopeful that change is coming. Even as the opioid crisis rolls like a juggernaut through the states that swung for him, President Trump seems to be doing little to stop it. Trump's FDA will probably regulate drug makers even less than Obama's.
"I don't have much hope for Purdue or other companies to do the right thing," Kolodny said. "What gets me is that the FDA isn't doing its job."
Unless something changes, the money will keep rolling into pharma companies' accounts and into politicians' pockets. And the ambulances will keep rolling, and the hearses, too. Opioids seem here to stay.