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Big Pharma Does Not Deserve Our Trust

The devastating opioid crisis in North America might happen again, according to a group set up by Stanford University and the Lancet last week. The unscrupulous actions shown by Patrick Radden Keefe in his prize-winning book Empire of Pain, published in 2021, were not limited to one firm, Purdue Pharma, and the Sackler family that owned it. They were and continue to be standard operating procedure in the Pharma sector and the regulatory organisations who are supposed to oversee it.

In some ways, the Covid epidemic has been big Pharma salvation. The vaccinations, which were created at breakneck speed despite decades of arduous, taxpayer-funded study, have been hailed as a triumph of public-private collaboration. However, this research reminds us that the issue of trust isn’t going away – and won’t be until we address it. Last Monday, Keith Humphreys, an addiction researcher at Stanford who led the group, said that if the opioid problem is measured in terms of years of life lost rather than sheer numbers of deaths, the fallout in the US and Canada is comparable to that of Covid.

Furthermore, the epidemic is increasing as firms expand their marketing reach, particularly in low- and middle-income nations, where adequate pain management and palliative care are typically scarce. Rich countries are no exception. Between 1998 and 2018, GP prescriptions for opioids more than doubled in the United Kingdom, prompting some to speculate that the country was experiencing its own opioid epidemic.

Humphreys pinned the blame on the opioid manufacturers, of which Purdue was just one. He did, however, identify the atmosphere that supported them, citing “major failings in regulation, law, healthcare systems, and individual physicians that failed to stop them.” And, according to him, the majority of those flaws have yet to be addressed.

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