“A CDC report released in October 2015 highlighted a daunting reality—prescription drugs kill more Americans than illegal drugs.”

Centers for Disease Control

There is no question there exists a duality of risks associated with prescription drugs—they can heal and they can kill. The CDC report released in October 2015 highlighted a daunting reality—prescription drugs kill more Americans than illegal drugs and the nation’s teenagers are the most at risk. The Journal of Public Policy and Marketing in addition to the Federal Drug Administration believe teens are more vulnerable because they believe wrongly that because they are prescription drugs sanctioned by the government, they must be safe.  Another contributing factor highlighted by the agency is that doctors are prescribing psychiatric medications for school-aged children at alarming rates.

From 1999 to 2013, the amount of painkillers (opioids) prescribed quadrupled as did the number of overdose deaths related to them.   Californians knows all too well the risks associated with prescription drugs, including their intended and unintended consequences. In late March, a rash of overdoses killed six people in less than a week in Sacramento County. According to experts a rise in the use of the powerful painkiller Fentanyl was the alleged culprit—Fentanyl can be fatal even in small doses. It is the latest prescription drug to appear in a nationwide epidemic of street drug abuse. Experts defined it as ‘just another face’ of the ongoing opioid epidemic. Since 1999, 165,000 Americans have died of causes related to painkiller drug use.  Between 2012 and 2014, the seizures of illegally used Fentanyl increased seven-fold. Nearly 29,000 people have died from opioids since 2014—the highest ever recorded.

The financial penalties levied against pharmaceutical companies continue to pale when compared to their profits–the combined 35.7 billion dollars in penalties paid from 1991 through 2015 represented only five percent of the 711 billion dollars in net profits made by the 11 largest global drug companies during just 10 of those 25 years (2003-2012).

Almost all of the decrease in the total number of settlements in 2014 and 2015 was related to a decrease in the number of single-state settlements that involved overcharging government health programs. Other factors that possibly attributed to the drop in settlement activity included a decline in federal enforcement; a shift in the focus of federal prosecutions away from off-label marketing and toward other forms of illegal activity; changes in state Medicaid pharmaceutical reimbursement strategies and shifts in industry marketing strategies.

“Time and time again, drug companies defraud American taxpayers while making billions off government-granted monopolies. Enough is enough,”

Bernie Sanders

“We don’t yet know why there were fewer and smaller settlements in the 2014 to 2015 period,” said Dr. Sammy Almashat, researcher with Public Citizen’s Health Research Group and lead author of the report. “But we do know that in addition to the rarity of executive accountability, previous penalties never have been large enough to deter the most common types of pharmaceutical fraud. So it would be surprising if the industry suddenly decided, of its own accord, to comply with laws it has routinely violated for decades.”

There is consensus among many that much larger penalties and successful prosecutions of company executives that oversee and purportedly give tacit approval to systemic fraud are necessary to deter future unlawful behavior. This would include jail sentences as appropriate.

Democratic presidential candidate Bernie Sanders responded to the Public Citizen’s report, “Time and time again, drug companies defraud American taxpayers while making billions off government-granted monopolies. Enough is enough,” he said. “The greed of the pharmaceutical industry must end. I urge my colleagues to stand up to the pharmaceutical industry and pass legislation to send a clear message that crime will no longer pay.”

In September 2015, Senator Sanders and U.S. Representative Elijah Cummings introduced legislation that  would terminate any remaining marketing exclusivities, granted by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration for drugs implicated in illegal activity.

There is some encouraging news for the African American community in regards to risks associated with the use of legal and illegal drugs.  In 2013 according to the CDC, the age adjusted death rate for drug induced causes of death increased by nearly six percent for the nation’s total population. For the African American community however, the news was encouraging. The age adjusted death rate in this category for black females was 46.5 percent lower than for white females and the rate for black males was 30.0 percent lower than for white males.

American’s pay 50 percent more for prescription drugs than most other countries. Many might be surprised to learn prescription drug pricing is unregulated in the United States. It is also hard to believe the same drug companies that research, develop and market drugs often do so with the help of federal grants paid for with tax dollars from the same consumers they sometimes kill with poor quality drugs and/or medical tools or gouge with their high prices. Often, they disingenuously blame the outrageous pricing on their need to recoup their own research and development dollars but do not bother to tell consumers their profits exponentially exceed their research and development costs.

Many progressives believe the only way out of this pharmaceutical pricing quagmire is to move to a single-payer system that would foster the best rates for the entire country through competition and negotiation.

Feature Photo: Danny De Bruyne