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BRIAN HODDER: What should we demand from big pharma companies?

U.S. lawsuit documents show makers of Oxycontin aware of addictive nature of drug

What would you expect your government to do if it became aware a company had deliberately unleashed a poison upon the population that was destroying many families and communities and was costing the health-care system a fortune? 

You might reasonably expect a sense of great outrage and a concerted attempt to hold this company responsible, both financially and morally, for the harm it had inflicted. You likely wouldn't be surprised if criminal charges were laid and some of those responsible spent time inside a prison to pay for the pain they had caused. 

You certainly would not expect that this company would be allowed to make massive profits by making us pay for the poison - and then pay them even more for something to deal with the poison. 

But, when it comes to the opioid crises affecting our population, reasonable expectations appear to have been tossed out the window.

Consider the case of Purdue Pharma, the company that brought Oxycontin to the marketplace and precipitated an addiction crisis that has killed thousands of people across this continent. The company marketed this painkiller as non-addictive while knowing full well, from its own research, that this was not the case; according to court documents filed in Massachusetts last month, the company was aware Oxycontin was addictive but convinced many doctors it was not, prompting them to prescribe this drug to patients. This has led to cycles of addiction that have ravaged many families across this region.

The documents coming from the lawsuit launched by the State of Massachusetts against the company claim Purdue Pharma was also trying to profit from drugs developed to deal with the crises created by Oxycontin; it bought the rights to Suboxone, a drug used to treat addicts, and considered buying the rights to Naloxone, which is used to treat opioid overdoses. Particularly galling is the text of an internal company memo around the treatment of addicts which found it to be “... an attractive market” with “... large unmet need for vulnerable, underserviced patient population...”.

Having seen first-hand the horrible impact addiction to this drug has had on these vulnerable individuals, their families and communities, it is heartbreaking to see their suffering reduced to just another opportunity for profit.

Having seen first-hand the horrible impact addiction to this drug has had on these vulnerable individuals, their families and communities, it is heartbreaking to see their suffering reduced to just another opportunity for profit by the company that bears some level of responsibility for their suffering in the first place. 

While our government has sued this company and there has been a cash settlement, the amount is a mere pittance compared to the profits made by this drug for Purdue and it has done little to ameliorate the damage done to our communities. To my knowledge, no one at Purdue has been held criminally responsible for the many deaths caused by Oxycontin addiction and we continue to increase their profit margins by paying for drugs that help addicts function without Oxycontin during their recovery.

Despite my characterization of Oxycontin as poison, I do recognize that the situation is not as clear-cut as that. Many people suffer severe physical pain and we depend upon pharmaceutical companies like Purdue to develop drugs like this to help people cope with this pain. There is a reasonable use for this drug and, when it comes to opioid addiction, there are many more characters in this story that bear some responsibility for the problem, including the government itself and the guidelines and regulations it develops around prescription drugs. We need pharmaceutical drugs to contribute to our health-care system and it isn't reasonable to bankrupt and destroy these companies when some of their products are not as beneficial as expected. It is equally unreasonable to not hold them responsible when they willfully place their profits ahead of the safety and well-being of our citizens and consciously mislead the public about the potential drawbacks of a drug they have developed. 

Even more importantly, we should have a reasonable expectation that our government would take a stronger stand in putting the health of the people ahead of all other considerations and insist on more than a slap on the wrist when any company puts its own profits ahead of our safety; sadly, in this situation, our government fell far short of this expectation.

Brian Hodder is an LGBTQ2 activist and works in the field of mental health and addictions. He can be reached at

Go online: See the court documents from the Purdue Pharma lawsuit here.

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