Despite their numerous gaffes over the course of the last year, the journalists and pundits of CNN usually do a decent job of getting their facts straight. Unless, of course, those facts include telling you who to blame whenever something goes wrong.
For example, daytime talk show host Dr. Oz hosted CNN’s chief medical correspondent Dr. Sanjay Gupta last Wednesday for a discussion about the recent FDA approval of a new and potentially dangerous prescription drug called Zohydro. An opioid derivative similar to OxyContin but significantly more powerful, Zohydro was approved by the FDA without any additives that prevent the drug from being ground up for snorting or shooting purposes, dramatically raising the odds of its abuse. A quick review of the evidence reveals that Drs. Oz and Gupta did indeed get their facts mostly straight on the dangers of the drug, but also reveals a significant lack of context I’m sure their respective employers would prefer not be mentioned.
Like most things, America’s epidemic of prescription drug abuse ultimately comes down to a question of responsibility.
Dr. Oz: So Sanjay, we’re supposed to be the gatekeepers of the system. We’re given MD degrees, a license to protect society. Are we responsible for this epidemic? Are doctors to blame?
Sanjay Gupta: Yes. I think this is, in large part, our responsibility. I mean, when you look at the statistic that eighty percent of the world’s pain medications are consumed in this country, it does mean that doctors are much more willing to write a prescription, hand it to a patient. They don’t have as much time with the patient as a result, instead of doing the things that take more time. Let’s try physical therapy, epidural steroid shots for example, massage therapy. People roll their eyes when they hear this, because they think the pills [are] just the the only way they can get relief from their pain.
First off, a note on that statistic: it’s incorrect. Two days before the Dr. Oz broadcast, Russ Belville of High Times Magazine did a report on Zohydrol, where he cites a recent drug addiction study published in the medical journal The Lancet stating that Americans consume 80 percent of all opioids and 99 percent of all hydrocodone, the opioid derivate present in drugs like OxyContin and Zohydrol. OxyContin was only recently reformulated to include additives that prevent its abuse, after being introduced to the public nearly twenty years ago. Since its creation, the number of people being treated for opioid addiction has skyrocketed, as indicated in a 2009 FDA study.
Belville also noted that the DEA has approved a 1,500 percent increase in quotas on hydrocodone manufacturing throughout the medical marijuana era, explaining that the increase was justified because “there had to be enough left for legitimate patients after all the recreational users had illegally gotten theirs.” I wonder if Dr. Gupta believes doctors are responsible for that.
Lastly, Belville had this to say about Zohydrol’s manufacturer, Alkermes:
“Also raising eyebrows is the company the FDA has approved to produce this new “Super-Vicodin:” Alkermes. In addition to making this powerfully addictive opioid drug, Alkermes makes the popular naltrexone medication Vivitrol, which is used to treat addictions to … wait for it … opioids. Sure, this may be no more shady than cigarette companies that also sell smoking cessation patches, until you find out that Alkermes also financially supports the American Society of Addiction Medicine, aka Big Rehab.”
So the company responsible for making and selling this potentially dangerous new drug also makes a drug to treat its addictive properties, and is a major donor to the drug rehab lobby? You and I might call these things a conflict of interest, but I’m sure Alkermes merely considers it to be smart business.
It’s easy to blame doctors for America’s prescription drug epidemic. But doctors don’t produce medications; they only provide them. What they’re providing may not always be as safe as they believe it to be. Doctors are also not immune to the politics or the ravages of Big Pharma. In fact, much of the evidence points to a campaign of misinformation, subterfuge, and hush money on behalf of drug manufacturers. In January, the website Alternet published an article entitled “Five Shady Ways Big Pharma May Be Influencing Your Doctor,” wherein a number of industry offenses are detailed. From spying on prescription records to ghostwriting in medical journals to staging faux clinical trials, Big Pharma’s influence can be felt across the medical landscape. Perhaps Dr. Gupta believes doctors are responsible for that, too.
The problems with Zohydrol are numerous, and its introduction to the public is a frightening development in the fight against prescription drug abuse. As long as people like Sanjay Gupta are either unwilling or unable to direct the blame at all of the appropriate parties, then lasting solutions to the problem will always remain just out of reach.
To watch the segment, check out the following video: