Is there really "no such thing as a free lunch”? Maybe this folksy wisdom is just more hot air, because free lunches, in a very literal sense, are a small part of the reason 650,000 human beings are expected to die from opioid overdoses in the next decade.
The Link Between Free Lunch and Opioids
The problem we’re talking about is twofold.
The first problem is the general likelihood of massive, already successful and wildly profitable pharmaceutical companies to stoop to petty bribery and coercion. The second part of the problem is the general likelihood of human beings to be susceptible enough to bribery to encourage that behavior in the first place.
You won’t be surprised to find Big Pharma at the heart of some underreported research that emerged recently in JAMA Internal Medicine. Let researchers Magdalena Cerdá, Scott Hadland and Maxwell Krieger walk you through the two aforementioned problems as they apply to the opioid industry.
Essentially, the research team wanted to know whether there was a correlation between the degree to which a doctor enjoys free handouts from big pharma companies and that doctor’s likelihood to prescribe the opioids those companies manufacture.
Again, the conclusion isn’t going to surprise you: There’s a correlation here, and it’s a big one.
Studying the Open Payments Database
The research team studied the Open Payments Database — a public oversight tool anybody can use — to track monetary payments pharmaceutical and medical device companies made to doctors and teachings.
Using data from 2014, the researchers looked at “non-research payments” of several types, including travel, speaking and consulting fees, “education programs” and, you guessed it, free lunches. They compared these findings to a list of doctors who had written 10 or more opioid prescriptions during the following year.
The data indicate doctors who received even just one free meal, paid for by an opioid company, were far more likely to recommend opioid prescriptions to their patients.
It’s worth mentioning that not every opioid-prescribing doctor received non-research contributions from companies that manufacture opioid products. There is a decisive correlation between Big Pharma making handouts to doctors and those doctors’ likelihoods to prescribe opioids. Nevertheless, it’s not a uniform one. Like it or not, real patient needs, including pain management for catastrophic injuries or chronic illnesses, do drive opioid prescriptions — and, in some unfortunate cases, dependency.
But here, too, is an opportunity to do right by our vulnerable citizens and the doctors who care for them.
The Two-Front War on Wellness
It’s not a secret that cannabis, and the intriguing molecular compounds within it, hold a vast amount of untapped medical potential. Anecdotal reports and genuine scientific research seem to emerge daily to cast light on the many diseases, conditions and impairments, both physical and mental, cannabis has the potential to treat, if not “cure” outright.
And that’s part of what makes the staggering corruption of Big Pharma even more unforgivable. While they’re feeding and paying off our doctors to drive up opioid sales — which even Trump knows is a full-blown public health emergency — they’re simultaneously lobbying ignorant and cruel members of Congress into keeping cannabis off the market, out of scientific laboratories and, ultimately, beyond the reach of the folks who need it most.
It’s a shame we can’t talk about cannabis without diving headlong into the grim realities of the opioid crisis, but not doing so would be disingenuous. It’s not about “cannabis culture” and stoner jokes on late-night TV shows. Make no mistake: This is a medical, ethical and social issue. Keeping the bribery of doctors and congressmen legal, but keeping pot illegal, even for research purposes, is the height of hypocrisy.
Worse than that, it’s a deliberate sabotage of our social responsibility to address human suffering wherever we see it — all in the name of corporate and shareholder profits. If you ever meet one of these “shareholders,” ask him whether his second home is worth the blood on his hands.
Legalized Bribery and Human Suffering
A country is not a company, and cannot be run like one. Why? Because the average company can’t seem to be trusted with its own moral governance, to say nothing of ours. One company in particular, Insys Therapeutics, stood head and shoulders above the others regarding payments made to doctors. More than half the doctor payments in the JAMA research came from Insys.
Insys has also been the subject of Senate investigations for gross and “extremely aggressive” marketing of fentanyl and other products. The company’s founder and several of its executives have been arrested due to their company’s ruthless, predatory practices.
Is Insys a “typical” company? Maybe not. But they are definitely a symbol of the damage that arises when a government fails to insulate itself from corruption. Insofar as we have a government right now, every appendage responsible for consumer protection is either getting starved to death or sawed off at the knees.
Alongside that, there seems to be no real traction on sealing up the flow of money from Big Pharma to doctors and teaching hospitals. And the opioid crisis keeps growing worse as pharma shareholders get richer.
Don’t let anybody tell you money in politics is a “wonky” or “far-left” issue. It lies right at the heart of some truly domestic terrorism.