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Profits and Prescription Drugs

By Caitlin Hoff

Health and Safety Investigator

The rising cost of medical expenses is nothing new to Americans. In recent years, medical bills have become the number one reason for personal bankruptcy filings in America, and it is not unusual to hear stories of people who ignored symptoms of disease in order to avoid seeking medical attention due to the accompanying financial costs.

One of the major reasons for these exorbitant costs of medical treatment and continued care is the pharmaceutical industry. This industry that manufactures life-saving medications and treatments also rakes in $374 billion a year. We have a healthcare system that literally deters people from seeking help because they can’t afford it, and yet this industry of prescription drugs profits in the billions. Is this right or ethical? Should an industry responsible for the health and wellness of our country’s citizens be so profit driven? Today we are looking at the behaviors of large U.S. pharmaceutical companies in their pursuit for profits.

 Misleading the Public

In 1996, Purdue Pharmaceuticals released OxyContin, a prescription opioid whose marketing efforts claimed to relieve pain for 12 hours. As we now know, these claims were dangerously misleading. For most patients, the pain relieving effects of OxyContin last less than 8 hours, leaving patients to suffer in pain and potentially experience intense withdrawal symptoms until their next dose. To relieve this physical pain, doctors began prescribing higher or more frequent doses, unknowingly fueling the potential addiction in patients.

Despite negative feedback from doctors and patients, Purdue Pharmaceuticals continued to claim that one dose in the morning and one dose in the evening were completely effective to treat pain. The company ignored research studies that showed the drug not lasting a full 12 hours for pain relief, and the pharmaceutical sales reps continued to push the drug to doctors, health care professionals, and the American people.

In 2016, the FDA labeled several opioid painkillers containing oxycodone and fentanyl with its black box warning, including OxyContin, to warn patients of the drug’s adverse and potentially addictive side effects. But the damage had been done. As Keith Humphreys, an addiction specialist at Stanford University, told reporters at the Washington Post, “‘the opioid epidemic alone is deadlier than the AIDS epidemic at its peak.’”

Purdue Pharmaceuticals continues to turn a major profit as thousands of Americans die of opioid overdose per year, largely in part because of their initial addiction to OxyContin and similar prescription painkillers.

Selling Harmful Drugs

Just this month, the pharmaceutical corporations Johnson & Johnson and Bayer paid a total of $28 million dollars to Lynn Hartmann and her husband because of the adverse side effects of the anticoagulant Xarelto. This is the fourth Xarelto verdict to end in the defendants’ favor

What makes Xarelto so dangerous? Xarelto is a blood thinner prescribed to patients with a high risk of blood clots, such as patients recovering from surgery or patients diagnosed with atrial fibrillation. The drug actually works faster than many other blood thinners on the market. Nevertheless, Xarelto has a number of serious adverse side effects and unlike like its counterparts, Xarelto does not have an approved antidote. This has lead to a high number of hospitalizations and deaths since its initial release in 2011.

Between 2013 and 2016, the warning labels for Xarelto changed five times as new adverse side effects were discovered. Xarelto is now sold with its own FDA black box warning, and yet this drug that has incited over 18,500 lawsuits still remains on the market.

Playing Politics with the Health of Americans

In 2009, the drug manufacturer Boehringer Ingelheim failed to receive FDA approval for its anticoagulant Pradaxa because of errors in the trial data. In 2010, after a closed-door meeting with Boehringer Ingelheim, the FDA reversed its initial decision and Pradaxa was approved in December of that year. For the first five years on the market, Pradaxa was sold without an antidote. Sound familiar?

Since its approval, Pradaxa has led to fatal incidents in over 1,000 patients, and thousands of consumer lawsuits have been filed against Boehringer Ingelheim. Like Xarelto, Pradaxa came with a whole host of adverse side effects including but not limited to increased bleeding, increased risk of stroke, and stomach or intestinal ulcers. In the pursuit of profit, Boehringer Ingelheim used questionable practices to not only fast-track its drug through the FDA approval process, but it also mislead doctors and patients about the possibly fatal side effects.

In 2015, Boehringer Ingelheim did finally develop an antidote for Pradaxa that was also approved by the FDA, but in the span of five years, thousands of people lost their lives because of a medication meant to save them. The resulting deaths and severe health complications caused by Pradaxa’s lack of antidote show the true feelings of many drug manufacturers: American lives are at the mercy of profitable drugs.

It is clear from the questionable marketing and selling practices of Big Pharma, that we have been labeled as dollar signs instead of as patients. Until consumers filed lawsuits, these drug manufacturers received no serious penalties for the harm caused by their drugs and continued to exploit unwell Americans. We need more than an FDA black box warning to protect us. We need pharmaceutical companies to take an oath, as other medical professionals do, to do no harm. And if Big Pharma can’t exercise responsibility, then it is up to our government to step in with a heavier hand to protect American citizens first before corporations.