Pharmacological companies do not have a good rap. They’ve been known to bury bad news, which has had an effect on people’s health, and therefore their lives. Whether it’s not testing drugs properly, as with the case of thalidomide (caused defects in babies) to restricting publication of results that indicated that Paxil caused an increase in suicide risk for teens.
However, are they advertising addiction? After all, if someone is addicted to a drug like oxycodone or morphine, that person then has to obtain more drugs, which have to be paid for by someone. So wouldn’t it pay the companies to increase profits by effectively advertising addiction?
The thing is, though, it doesn’t work that way. In general, most doctors are conscientious people who want people to get better, so a product that causes adverse effects is often quickly noted. The FDA also runs a drug reporting system to ensure that drugs do what they say they’re supposed to do with the side effects reported by the drug company.
Effectively, the US market is heavily regulated, and pushing addictive medications onto a population that is getting ever more informed is not really practical. Drugs have to undergo a wide range of trials that tend to detect whether a drug has certain adverse reactions. Computer models are also sophisticated enough that you can tell in advance what drugs are likely to be addictive.
So where’s the issue?
Effective Drugs and Addiction
The problem is that some very effective drugs are addictive. Sleep aids, narcotics, and other effective drugs often prescribed are addictive, despite researchers’ best attempts to come up with nonaddictive alternatives. When a patient is prescribed morphine, that patient runs the risk of being addicted to the opiate.
It’s not much of a win-win situation for the doctor. On the one hand, the doctor doesn’t want the patient to become addicted. On the other hand, the pain must be controlled, and there aren’t medications that can do this effectively.
Ah, you might say. What if the pharmaceutical companies are sitting on a highly effective pain-relief drug that is nonaddictive.
Drug Company Profits & Non-addictive Drug Alternatives
Well, the simple response to that is this: Money. The first company to come up with a completely nonaddictive opiate will rake in billions. Drug patents last for twenty years, so a company that manufactures a nonaddictive opiate that is as effective as morphine will control the drug market for up to twenty years. After all, why would a doctor prescribe an addictive substance when he or she could prescribe a nonaddictive alternative? That assumes, of course, there are no other serious side effects that would stop it from being used. A drug that kills pain is useless if it also induces renal failure or something similar.
The same goes for sleep aids. The ones we have work on certain receptors in the brain, and it’s hard for the brain to function without them once the drugs have been used for a while. The first company to make an effective sleep aid that actually works without serious addiction issues would make a fortune.
At the moment, though, these drugs have not been found, although drugs like buprenorphine have come close. Opiates and drugs that act on the opioid receptors are by definition addictive, and that’s a sad fact of medicine.
Drug Company Risks and Liabilities
When companies do end up causing issues, big fines and major lawsuits result. Patients insist on compensation for their losses, and these losses can run into the millions. A recent company found this out the hard way when batches of medications were reportedly contaminated with fungal meningitis and affected at least 650 people. The company had to close.
In short: pharmaceutical errors and deliberate omissions are punished, so no company in their right mind would deliberately minimize the risk of addiction. Lawsuits can bankrupt a company and eliminate shareholder profits, which make these sort of decisions unviable.
Finally, it’s likely that some of the shareholders will be on the drug the company manufactures, and this encourages a certain amount of responsibility. While no drug will work the same way in everyone and without side effects, big pharma makes its living by continually improving its compounds. Without its innovations, we wouldn’t have many of the drugs we have today.