The Addiction Conspiracy: How Government and Big Pharma Created an Epidemic

Story at-a-glance

  • Americans use the most opioids of any nation; in 2013, 16,000 Americans died from overdosing on narcotic painkillers
  • The drug industry created the opioid addiction epidemic by introducing long-acting opioid painkillers like OxyContin and changing pain prescription guidelines to make opioids the first choice for many types of chronic pain
  • Drug industry also promoted the long-term use of opioids, even though there’s no evidence that using these drugs long term is safe and effective, and downplayed the risk of addiction to these drugs
  • Now the U.S. government has approved opioid legislation that feeds profits right back to the drug industry by focusing on treatment for painkiller addiction and making anti-addiction drugs more easily available


This is an older article that may not reflect Dr. Mercola’s current view on this topic. Use our search engine to find Dr. Mercola’s latest position on any health topic.

By Dr. Mercola

While most drugs come with a long list of potentially devastating side effects, painkillers — courtesy of their addictive nature — tend to be among the most lethal. Prescriptions for opioid painkillers have risen by 300 percent over the past 10 years,1 and Americans use 80 percent of the world's opioids.2

In Alabama, which has the highest opioid prescription rate in the U.S., 143 prescriptions are written for every 100 people.3 A result of this trend is that overdose deaths from painkillers now far surpass those from illicit street drugs.

In 2013, about 23,000 Americans died from overdosing on prescription drugs, and painkillers accounted for about 16,000 of those deaths.4

Drug Industry Is Responsible for Mass Addiction

Many believe the drug companies that create and sell these drugs need to be held accountable for this dangerous trend, especially since several have been caught lying about the benefits and risks of their drugs.

As noted by the Organic Consumers Association (OCA),5 the drug industry has "fostered the opioid addiction epidemic" in several ways, by:

Introducing long-acting opioid painkillers like OxyContin, which prior to reformulation in 2010 could be snorted or shot. Many addicts claimed the high from OxyContin was better than heroin.

In fact, from a chemical standpoint, OxyContin is nearly identical to heroin, and has been identified as a major gateway drug to heroin

Changing pain prescription guidelines to make opioids the first choice for lower back pain and other pain conditions that previously did not qualify for these types of drugs.

Even the World Health Organization (WHO) has had a hand in this problem, although it restricted its promotion of narcotic painkillers to cancer patients6

Promoting long-term use of opioids, even though there's no evidence that using these drugs long term is safe and effective

Downplaying and misinforming doctors and patients about the addictive nature of opioid drugs. OxyContin, for example, became a blockbuster drug mainly through misleading claims, which Purdue Pharma knew were false from the start.

The basic promise was that it provided pain relief for a full 12 hours, twice as long as generic drugs, giving patients "smooth and sustained pain control all day and all night."

However, for many the effects don't last anywhere near 12 hours, and once the drug wears off, painful withdrawal symptoms set in, including body aches, nausea and anxiety. These symptoms, in addition to the return of the original pain, quickly begin to feed the cycle of addiction.7

A 2015 article8 in The Week does a great job revealing the promotional strategy developed by Purdue, and backed by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA), that has led to such enormous personal tragedy. As noted in this article,

"The time-release conceit even worked on the FDA, which stated that 'Delayed absorption, as provided by OxyContin tablets is believed to reduce the abuse liability of a drug.'"

New Hampshire Suing Over Deceptive Marketing

Several states are indeed trying to hold drug makers accountable for the epidemic of addiction.9

One of them is New Hampshire, where the state attorney general's office has filed a lawsuit against Purdue Pharma, accusing the company of deceptive marketing, saying it misrepresented the risks and benefits of long-term opioid use for chronic pain.

But while the attorney general's legal team consists of three people, Purdue has 19 lawyers on the case. As reported by Concord Monitor:10

"One year after the state attorney general's office filed subpoenas against five large drug companies to discover how addictive painkillers have been marketed in the state, the pharmaceutical giants have handed over nothing more than legal briefs ...

The current legal fight is whether the attorney general's office can hire outside help.

All of the drug companies have refused to turn over any internal documents, as long as the attorney general's office works with hired counsel — Cohen Milstein — a firm that has litigated similar cases against the pharmaceutical industry.

Lawyers representing the drug companies have argued Cohen Milstein has an inherent bias against them because it will only get paid if the state takes future legal action against the drug companies.

A Merrimack County Superior Court judge recently sided with the state, but the drug companies are refusing to budge ... 'They don't want us to know, that's for sure,' Boffetti said. 'We can have no resources; they'll do everything they can to prevent us from seeing the documents.'"

OxyContin — The $30 Billion 'Widow Maker'

Since its approval in 1996, Purdue has raked in more than $31 billion from the sale of OxyContin. Sales remained unaffected even after Purdue and three of its executives pleaded guilty in 2007 to criminal charges of misleading regulators, doctors and patients about the drug's addiction and abuse risk.

The company paid $600 million in fines and payments. The three executives, which included Purdue's president and one of its lawyers, agreed to pay another $34.5 million in fines after pleading guilty of misbranding.11

As early as 2003, the FDA ordered Purdue to pull its printed advertisements for OxyContin, saying the ads "grossly misrepresent" the drug's safety profile.12

Despite such obvious warning signs that opioids were being misrepresented and misbranded, little was done to rein in their use. More than 194,000 people have died from overdoses involving opioids, including OxyContin, since 1999. During this time, the death rate from overdoses among women has risen by 450 percent.

Addiction among younger adults has also dramatically risen. As noted by Dr. Andrew Kolodny, founder of Physicians for Responsible Opioid Prescribing (PROP), many get caught in a cycle of addiction after being prescribed an opioid drug for a sports injury or wisdom tooth extraction.13

But the elderly are the most vulnerable group. Not only are they prescribed opioids more often than younger people, they also have the highest addiction and death rate.

Beware: Opiates Are Potent Immunosuppressive Drugs

Earlier this month, I interviewed Dr. Thomas Cowan, a family physician and founding board member of the Weston A. Price Foundation (WAPF), about the use of low-dose naltrexone (LDN) for autoimmune diseases. Naltrexone is an opiate antagonist, originally developed in the early 1960s for the treatment of opioid addiction. It blocks the effects of the narcotic by attaching to opioid receptors in your body.

For heroin overdoses, a dose of about 30 to 50 milligrams (mg) of naltrexone is used to prevent the fatal respiratory depression from a narcotic overdose. However, when used at a very LOW dose, about one-tenth or less of the dose you'd use for opioid addiction, LDN ends up working as an immune booster.

Cowan shared some interesting and largely unknown information about opioids in that interview. As it turns out, opioids are actually very potent immune suppressors. As such they can wreck your health in serious ways, leaving you far worse off than where you started.

A famous study called the European Prostitute Study actually showed the primary risk factor for HIV and AIDS was neither sexual exposure nor IV exposure, but rather opiate exposure. It is believed that overstimulation of the opioid receptors, as from opioid drugs, results in severe immune impairment.

According to Cowan, you will typically see that as soon as a patient starts taking opiates for chronic pain, their health rapidly declines as their immune system becomes increasingly compromised. Besides avoiding addiction, this is another important factor to consider before you start taking a narcotic pain reliever.

Drugmaker Knew OxyContin Ended Up in Hands of Criminals and Addicts

The Los Angeles Times recently published a scathing exposé on Purdue Pharma, describing how the company had extensive knowledge of and evidence showing their drug OxyContin was being sold through pill mills and organized drug rings,14 yet did nothing to stop it. According to the article:15

"[F]or more than a decade, Purdue collected extensive evidence suggesting illegal trafficking of OxyContin and, in many cases, did not share it with law enforcement or cut off the flow of pills. A former Purdue executive, who monitored pharmacies for criminal activity, acknowledged that even when the company had evidence pharmacies were colluding with drug dealers, it did not stop supplying distributors selling to those stores.

Purdue knew about many suspicious doctors and pharmacies from prescribing records, pharmacy orders, field reports from sales representatives and, in some instances, its own surveillance operations, according to court and law enforcement records ..."

Purdue insists it has "at all times complied with the law."16 Yet according to federal law, drug makers are required to report suspicious drug orders and activity to the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA), and must also reject orders if they suspect the drugs may be sold on the black market. Purdue did neither.

Senate-Approved Opioid Legislation Another Boon for Drugmakers

Frustratingly, government action is simply "feeding the beast" that is Big Pharma. While concerns about rising addiction rates led to the passing of the Comprehensive Addiction and Recovery Act, which was approved by the U.S. Senate in May, the bill does little to address the root of the problem.17,18

Rather than punish drug makers who promote addiction through misleading or false marketing, the bill focuses on the treatment of addicts and availability of anti-addiction drugs. For example, the bill will allow doctors and nurse practitioners to prescribe buprenorphine, which has previously been notoriously difficult to obtain.

Buprenorphine19 is a partial opioid agonist, so while it's a type of opioid, it's less likely to cause a "high," and hence less likely to promote addiction. Meanwhile, it also functions as a pain reliever.

While safe and effective treatment is certainly necessary, one could argue that replacing one addictive drug with another is not a real solution. Rather than reining in the misuse and excessive use of narcotic painkillers, the bill simply rewards Big Pharma with more orders for more — albeit different — pills!

So the same industry that created the addiction problem in the first place is now rewarded for its callousness, as the government's plan to address the addiction epidemic simply feeds back into the drug industry's pockets.

Drug companies intentionally got people addicted and now they're providing the treatment drugs, which will be paid for by your tax dollars. The 2017 budget will include over $1 billion in "new mandatory funding over two years to expand access to treatment for prescription drug abuse and heroin use."20 Why isn't the drug industry being held accountable for at least part of this enormous financial burden?

Instead, drug companies are raking in more money than ever before. For example, with increasing demand, the price for the overdose-reversing drug naloxone (Narcan) has nearly doubled, from $20 to $40 per dose.21 And why isn't more done to prevent the misuse and overuse of narcotic painkillers in the first place, especially since they've been clearly identified as the new gateway drug to heroin?

West Virginia Legislation to Regulate Suboxone Clinics

In West Virginia, Governor Earl Ray Tomblin has proposed a bill that would require addiction clinics using Suboxone to be regulated by the state. Suboxone is a drug consisting of four parts buprenorphine and one part naloxone. Naloxone is considered an "abuse deterrent," as it causes more painful withdrawal symptoms.

The Tomblin bill would require Suboxone clinics to offer counseling and perform drug testing on all patients to ensure the drug is used as intended. Despite its use as an anti-addiction drug, Suboxone, as well as pure buprenorphine (sold under the brand name Subutex) can and has been abused. As reported by Charleston Gazette-Mail:22

"The bill (SB 454) attempts to crack down on Suboxone clinics that deal in cash. It requires clinics to bill a patient's health insurance before they bill the patient, so that clinics can't cater to cash customers who intend to abuse or sell their medication ..."

While this may sound all good and well, there are serious questions to be raised here. Suboxone is the sole buprenorphine drug on West Virginia's "preferred" list for Medicaid coverage, per contract with the maker of the drug, Reckitt Benckiser. Similar drugs, such as Zubsolv and Bunavail, are available in lower doses, which may reduce the risk of abuse, yet they cannot be prescribed to West Virginia Medicaid patients unless Suboxone treatment fails.

Why does West Virginia have such a monopoly contract with Reckitt Benckiser? In December 2013, Reckitt's offices in Richmond, Virginia, were raided by agents from the Internal Revenue Service (IRS) and the Office of Inspector General (OIG). According to a report23 from that time, the search warrant was issued by the U.S. Attorney's Office for the District of Western Virginia.

The company has also been slapped with antitrust lawsuits24,25 by drug wholesalers and insurance companies who claim "Reckitt 'schemed' to obstruct generic competition." The company is also under investigation by the Federal Trade Commission (FTC).26,27 Again, while treatment for addiction is important, it seems white-collar pharma criminals are rewarded by this kind of legislation, and the government is basically just providing a monopoly for addiction treatment with another addictive drug.28

Drug Addiction — An Intentionally-Created 'Disease'

More and more politicians are now starting to view and discuss opioid addiction as a disease,29 but none address the crux of the problem or the elephant in the room, which is that this "disease" has been created intentionally by the drug industry and the federal government. This pays, because then they can make even more money on the drugs issued to treat the addicts.

Meanwhile, low-cost medical marijuana is listed as a Schedule I controlled substance, alongside heroin, LSD and Ecstasy. This really defies all common sense and logic. Schedule I controlled substances have a "high potential for abuse" and "no accepted medical use."

But when it comes to marijuana, mounting evidence suggests it may in fact have many beneficial medical uses. It appears to be especially helpful for chronic pain conditions. One recent study found patients given the herb experienced 30 percent or greater improvement in pain compared with placebo.30

Other research has found marijuana therapy produced "dramatic physical and mental improvements" in nursing home patients, while simultaneously reducing the need for other medications.31

Medical Marijuana Lowers Prescription Drug Use and Abuse

Other recent research also found that medical marijuana lowers prescription drug use. Could that be why it hasn't been rescheduled? There are no other truly compelling reasons why addictive narcotics like OxyContin are legal, while marijuana — which is extremely unlikely to kill you even if you take very high amounts — is not.

The video above features W. David Bradford, Ph.D., whose study was published in the journal Health Affairs earlier this month32 As reported by The Washington Post:33

"[R]esearchers at the University of Georgia scoured the database of all prescription drugs paid for under Medicare Part D from 2010 to 2013. They found that, in the 17 states with a medical-marijuana law in place by 2013, prescriptions for painkillers and other classes of drugs fell sharply compared with states that did not have a medical-marijuana law.

The drops were quite significant: In medical-marijuana states, the average doctor prescribed 265 fewer doses of antidepressants each year, 486 fewer doses of seizure medication, 541 fewer anti-nausea doses and 562 fewer doses of anti-anxiety medication. But most strikingly, the typical physician in a medical-marijuana state prescribed 1,826 fewer doses of painkillers in a given year."

According to Bradford, the Medicare program could save $468 million per year if marijuana was legalized in all U.S. states.34,35 Already, $165 million was saved in 2013 in the 18 states where medical marijuana was legal that year. Similarly, a 2015 working paper by the National Bureau of Economic Research (NBER) states that:36

"If marijuana is used as a substitute for powerful and addictive pain relievers in medical marijuana states, a potential overlooked positive impact of medical marijuana laws may be a reduction in harms associated with opioid pain relievers, a far more addictive and potentially deadly substance."

Not only did the NBER find that access to state-sanctioned medical marijuana dispensaries resulted in a significant decrease in prescription painkiller overdose deaths, it also led to a 15 to 35 percent drop in substance abuse admissions. So, it would seem medical marijuana — far from being the deadly drug it's been made out to be — could actually SAVE thousands of lives that would otherwise be destroyed by painkiller addiction and its lethal consequences.

It's a real travesty that while the U.S. Senate refuses to release its opioid report,37 they're more than willing to shell out taxpayer money to Big Pharma, both for addictive painkillers AND the drugs to treat addiction.

Are You or Someone You Love Addicted to Painkillers?

Some of the marketing material for opioids claims the drug will not cause addiction "except in very rare cases," describing the adverse effects patients experience when quitting the drug as a "benign state" and not a sign of addiction. This simply isn't true. As noted by Kolodny, "It's not true that patients can be easily tapered off these drugs."

Panic is one psychological side effect commonly experienced when quitting these drugs, and this can easily fuel a psychological as well as physical dependence on the drug.

It's important to recognize the signs of addiction, and to seek help. If you've been on an opioid for more than two months, or if you find yourself taking higher dosages, or taking the drug more often, you're likely already addicted and are advised to seek help from someone other than your prescribing doctor. Resources where you can find help include:

Your workplace Employee Assistance Program

The Substance Abuse Mental Health Service Administration38 (SAMHSA) can be contacted 24 hours a day at 1-800-622-HELP

With all the health risks associated with opioid painkillers, I strongly urge you to exhaust other options before resorting to these drugs. For a long list of alternative pain treatments, please see my previous article, "How Federal Policies Have Spawned a Heroin Epidemic."


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