Drug industry’s influence must be countered

An editorial from The Herald-Dispatch 

HUNTINGTON, W.Va. — If you think the battle to curb the nation’s opioid crisis is concentrated mostly on police hunting down drug traffickers and within treatment centers where addicts are struggling to recover, think again.

Instead, much of it over the past decade has taken place in state capitals and in Congress and federal agencies in Washington, D.C., as the pharmaceutical industry has plowed money into lobbyists and connected advocacy groups. In those locations across the country, the lobbyists have worked to defeat and delay legislation and initiatives aimed at curbing Americans’ access to powerful opioid prescription drugs, which have fueled addiction and overdose deaths.

Those are the findings of an investigation by The Associated Press and the Center for Public Integrity, which studied the amount of money that the pharmaceutical industry and groups funded partly by the drugmakers have dedicated to lobbyists and campaign contributions for state and federal lawmakers and other elected government officials.

 Their research found:

* The pharmaceutical companies and allied groups that have participated in the Pain Care Forum – a coalition of companies and advocacy groups that meets monthly to discuss opioid-related issues – spent more than $880 million from 2006 through 2015 on campaign contributions and lobbying expenses at the state and federal levels. For perspective’s sake, that is more than 200 times what those advocating for stricter policies spent and eight times more than the influential gun lobby recorded for similar activities during that same period.

* Those groups hired an average of more than 1,350 state lobbyists and more than 115 federal lobbying organizations each year during that 10-year period. West Virginia, which has the highest drug overdose rate in the country, ranked 10th in the nation for the number of registered lobbyists in the state legislature, averaging 18 lobbyists a year, the investigation found.

 * The Pain Forum organizations contributed more than $140 million to political campaigns, including more than $75 million to federal candidates, political action committees and parties. In West Virginia, candidates and office-holders received a total of more than $250,000 during the 10-year period, while in Ohio political candidates at the state and federal level received more than $3.5 million.

The pharmaceutical industry maintains it is working to limit the abuse of the painkillers, yet it continues to work in state legislatures to protect its interests while the death rates continue to grow. While the prescribing of the opioid drugs has waned somewhat in the last couple of years, it remains higher than what could reasonably be viewed as needed. In 2015, more than 227 million opioid prescriptions were written, enough to provide a prescription to nine of 10 U.S. adults.

It’s important for the public to be aware of the massive lobbying and influence effort and where it comes from. Over the past few decades, the pharmaceutical industry has overstated the effectiveness of and need for the powerful painkiller drugs, have shipped mass quantities of pills to areas where the populations in no way could justify such a demand for legitimate use, and have downplayed the addictive characteristics of the drugs.

Of course, it is the industry’s right to present its case to federal and lawmakers. But the public should realize that the industry has not been looking out for Americans’ best interests. The public also should demand that government representatives be focused on protecting the public from the drug scourge rather than protecting the drug companies and their bottom lines.

To see more from The Herald-Dispatch, click here. 

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