Monday, December 19, 2016

The Tobacco Playbook: Opioids Go Global

Remember when the full weight of federal and state governments, along with support from advocacy and public health groups, finally came crashing down on the heads of the tobacco industry?  Do you remember what the tobacco industry did?  They went global.  Today, 75% of the world's smokers live in developing countries. The growth of tobacco use in the developing world hinges on the lack of regulatory controls at each critical step in the value chain: manufacturing, distribution, marketing, retail sales, consumption - it's just easier to get people hooked in the developing world.

A refresher on an oft-quoted statistic: the US is less than 5% of the world's population, but we consume 80% of the world's opioid supply.  As regulatory scrutiny grows around opioid manufacturers, we might expect them to behave as the tobacco industry has over the last quarter century or more.  Imagine if, at some future date, 80% of opioids were consumed outside the US. Would you have the moral courage to resist that investment temptation?

From the great work of the LA Times, we know that's exactly the plan our old friends at Purdue Pharma (makers of Oxycontin) are carrying out.  Through an international subsidiary (with a different name, of course), Purdue is pursuing overseas markets with much the same strategy as they did the US market in the late 1990s (and we can count on a similar result: foul deeds will rise).  They pay medical "experts" to give seminars to doctors that suggest opioids should be used more for pain management, not less.  In one instance cited in the article, Purdue was paying Dr. Joseph Pergolizzi to give such seminars.  Dr. Pergolizzi appears to have some credentialing issues, though.  He claimed an affiliation with Temple University as well as my own alma mater, Georgetown University.  When challenged on those affiliations, he claimed he was having "paperwork issues" at Temple and was "in discussions" with Georgetown.  I was heartened by my alma mater's response: "We are not in discussions with that gentleman."  Good stuff.

Two key questions over the next decade:
1) Will the public health infrastructure in the US, having learned from its experience with Big Tobacco, get out ahead of this potential international opioid crisis and warn developing countries about the dangers they face?
2) Will those developing countries listen?

On Twitter @PRIUM1

PS: As this will be the last post of 2016 for Evidence Based, I thought I'd take a moment to let you in on a little secret.  This past year was the 400th anniversary of the death of William Shakespeare (that's not a secret... hang with me a second...)  I have a great love of Shakespeare that was instilled in me by the greatest AP Lit teacher on planet Earth, Ross Friedman. He's retired now, but his love of language, culture, art, and great writing lives on in the thousands of students he taught through his career.

And that brings me to the secret of the Evidence Based blog in 2016: To honor The Great Bard (and my great teacher, Mr. Friedman), I have included an allusion to one of Shakespeare's plays or sonnets in every blog post I wrote in 2016 (above: "foul deeds will rise"is from Hamlet, Act I, Scene 2).  If you noticed, well then bonus points for you.  I had fun doing it and learned along the way that Shakespeare had something to say about everything... even healthcare, regulatory policy, and pharma companies.

Happy Holidays!  And thanks for reading!

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