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Thursday, March 29, 2018

Drug Abuse and Drug Companies





As most readers will know, opiate abuse and overdoses have increased dramatically in recent years, and it’s all over the news. Some of the public may even be aware of the role of drug companies and drug distributors in the process – the latter being recently profiled on an episode of Sixty Minutes. Let’s look at the role of the drug companies.

A Pharma executive, a billionaire, was arrested in October on charges of bribing doctors to prescribe opioid painkillers. (http://fortune.com/2017/10/26/john-kapoor-insys-therapeutics-arrested-net-worth/). The Department of Justice arrested Insys Therapeutics founder John Kapoor, 74, in Phoenix. Kapoor was charged with using bribes and fraud to prop up sales of a pain medication called Subsys, a fentanyl spray typically used to treat cancer patients suffering excruciating pain. Fentanyl is 50 to 100 stronger than morphine, and contributed to the overdose deaths of pop stars Prince and Tom Petty.

When it comes to drugs of abuse, the lunatics seem to have taken over the asylum in medicine these days. In their push towards huge profits, dangerous drugs are being hawked when cheaper, less toxic, and less addictive alternatives are available for treating some conditions. And as discussed in this blog, whole diseases such as “adult adhd” have been invented out of whole cloth.

For those readers who may not know, potentially addictive drugs are referred to by the Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA)  as “scheduled” drugs. Schedule I drugs are the illegal ones. Schedule II drugs are those with the highest abuse potential: narcotics and stimulants. Schedule  IV drugs are those considered to be of low potential for abuse. If you didn’t know how the drugs were scheduled, you certainly would never know it from listening to presentations by doctors working with Pharma.

Pharma hires doctors to do research on as well as give talks to other doctors about their products, totally with the goal of increasing sales – if patients do happen to benefit in some way, all the better – but that is hardly a requirement. The slides that are presented during the talks are furnished entirely by the drug company after being approved internally; the doctors giving the talks are not allowed in most instances to use their own slides.

Pharma is particularly known for employing what they call “Key Opinion Leaders” (KOLs) to give promotional talks to doctors around the country. The more academic credibility they seem to have the better – that is one source of determining who might be a KOL. But it is not the only one.

Pharma can actually get any given doctor’s prescribing records from the pharmacy industry (unless the doctor “opts out” of allowing his or her data to be mined in this way. Most docs are not even aware of this option—and having the information publically available is the default position). Pharma then uses this data to see if prescriptions for their products increase after one of their KOLs makes a presentation. 

Those doctors that make the best salesmen are hired again and again, while those who do not measure up are dropped.

A colleague of mine has taken a course required in Tennessee for licensure that discusses the “proper way” to  prescribe drugs of abuse. The course was sponsored by our malpractice carrier. According to him, one year the leader of the course scolded the doctors present for not prescribing enough opiates to people with chronic pain. 

The doctors were told how much suffering they were causing these patients by withholding these medications. Just one year later, after the “opioid crisis” hit the news, the same course was given. Only this time, the doctors were scolded because they were prescribing these “suddenly” dangerous and highly addictive substances to their patients with chronic pain!
In my post of 3/29/17, Those Big Bad Benzodiazepines, I discussed how the risks of that class of medication (Schedule IV) have been wildly overblown in the medical literature and in public news stories. As well as being classified as “low abuse potential” by the DEA, they do not cause intoxication, and have next to no side effects compared to just about any other class of meds in most patients. I am not saying they are never abused, but usually only by people that mix them with opiates and alcohol. 
And of course any individual can have a bad reaction to any drug. It seems benzo’s are never discussed without the admonition that the “are addictive,” or have a few side effects in (some) patients – while drugs like amphetamines (Schedule II) that are abused far more often, and have more potential adverse or toxic side effects, are enthusiastically pushed.
And I do mean pushed, as in supplied by pushers masquerading as drug companies. I recall a “grand rounds” (a major lecture at an academic department in a medical school) from maybe 18-20 years ago in which the KOL was saying that about 18% of all adults should be on high doses of speed, that the reason that many of the parents of kids diagnosed with ADHD were substance abusers was because, "If you had a kid with ADHD, you'd drink too," and that kids who had ADHD could concentrate intensely on video games in an arcade despite multiple and pervasive loud distractions all about because that is "not concentrating." (I always wondered what the heck it supposedly was). I kid you not.
As another amazing example of drug pushing, one news service for psychiatry called MDLinx devotes a whole e-mail newsletter to articles extolling the use and virtues of drugs like Adderall and Concerta. Some recent examples:
MDLinx Psychiatry 3/13/18 - Ranked, sorted, and summarized by MDLinx editors from the latest literature.
IN THE NEWS
SHP465 mixed amphetamine salts effective, safe for ADHD in adults
Liz Meszaros, MDLinx, 03/08/2018

Researchers investigate the link between ADHD and risk of self-harm
Paul Basilio, MDLinx, 02/23/2018


Study of 23,000 people links ADHD with genetic signature for delay discounting. Paul Basilio, MDLinx, 12/11/2017
They also have a section of their more general psychiatric newsletters also devoted to this goal that is called the ADHD Resource Center: A collection of articles and features related to ADHD with articles like:


            National Conference & Exhib Conference

Of course, none of these Pharma sales mechanisms would matter that much if there were not already a ready market for abusable medications. That market is growing, and adverse childhood experiences and family dysfunction are a huge part of that problem.

Still, as Steppenwolf used to sing, “G-d damn the pusher man.”

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