The week before director Chris Bell’s latest documentary, Prescription Thugs, hit theaters, prescription drug abuse had already captivated the nation. Just 22 days into the New Year, 968 people had died from prescription-drug overdose.
Yep. You guessed it: Big Pharma.
With the nation’s biggest pharmaceutical companies focusing on quarterly profits at the expense of patients, there is, simply put, no such thing as over-prescription. But here are the facts:
- The CDC reports that each day more than 7,000 people are treated for using prescription drugs in a manner other than as directed.
- Over-prescription leads to abuse, which has led to an epidemic that claims 44 lives a day from overdose in the United States alone.
That means that by the time you finish reading this article, someone’s life will have been affected – maybe even ended – by abusing a legal drug. The equation is simple: More pills equals more money. So rather than reacting in a responsible way to the growing evidence of abuse, Big Pharma is still pumping out 10 times the amount of OxyContin than the world needs.
Billions of Dollars & an Army of Lobbyists
Why are obvious changes not being made to curb the flow of these dangerous drugs?
In 2013, Big Pharma spent $226 Million and employed an army of over 1,500 lobbyists on Capitol Hill. As Bell points out in Prescription Thugs, that’s $422,000 per congressman. Throughout his documentary, Bell tries to find the deeper causes of America’s prescription drug problem, but the frightening numbers are hard to ignore. Just how much does Big Pharma’s big money cater the laws to their favor?
Selected for the Tribeca Film Festival, Prescription Thugs is the third documentary from the director/producer and former MMA fighter (Bigger Stronger Faster*, 2008; Trophy Kids, 2013). Bell casts a wide net, bringing together experts and insiders to weigh in on this important issue. The picture they paint is one of an industry that preys upon misinformation and makes money through keeping people sick. “Disease management,” as it’s referred to by Big Pharma. Because of their shareholders, Pharma has little interest in watching someone get better; rather, they would prefer a sick person keep buying more and more of their drugs.
Battling Pharma’s deep pockets is no easy task. But for filmmaker Chris Bell, the importance of getting the truth out about prescription drugs is personal.
A History of Misinformation
The heart of the problem, as Bell approaches it, is this: Unlike illegal drugs, prescription drugs have a long-held reputation for being safe. The commercials make it sound so simple. Just “talk with your doctor, and find out if this pill is right for you.” And poof! Just like that, your problem vanishes. But what happens when pharmaceutical companies don’t give the doctor the full story? Bell said:
“Back when OxyContin first got to be the most powerful drug in this country: Purdue Pharma was telling people that this drug wasn’t addictive. So people were using the drug, doctors were prescribing the drug, and everybody was using the drug in the beginning, with the pretense that it wasn’t going to be addictive. And it happens to be one of the most addictive drugs this country has ever seen. So we know that was a big lie from the pharmaceutical industry that caused a major addiction problem in this country.”
But doctors were trained – in their various American medical schools – in the complete opposite way. They were trained to treat pain, and to make a patient’s pain go away. The best way to meet that objective? Feed their patients painkillers – and not just one, but lots of them. Bell elaborated on the broken system:
“We have more people getting prescribed drugs because, in this country, that’s how doctors are told to fix things. They’re told to fix them with drugs. If somebody is in pain: prescribe them medicine. That’s sort of the business model we’re operating under and it’s the wrong business model.”
Big Pharma spends big money promoting their products, and they want to make sure that those products sell. Whether drugs are being abused or taken responsibly is of no concern to companies that are concentrating on the bottom line.
Revenue from oxycodone dropped by 80% after the crushable form of the pill was discontinued. That is to say, once the drug could no longer be easily abused, demand plunged. Signs of abuse are obvious, but as long as sales are high, Big Pharma will do its best to ignore reality.
A Former Pharma-Rep Speaks Out
The film’s most haunting interview is arguably with Gwen Olsen, who worked as a pharma-rep for 15 years. After losing her niece to suicide, Gwen discovered that both Big Pharma and the FDA had “covered up” information that showed the drugs her niece was on could cause suicidal thoughts.
For years, she had been a “drug pusher” for the industry because she thought it was ethical, but after her niece’s death, she couldn’t keep up the charade. She talks with Bell about the unethical presentation of drugs to doctors by the pharmaceutical companies who are trying to sell as much product as they can. She said:
“I started to recognize that I wasn’t getting the full picture. The information was being presented to me through rose-colored glasses so that I would present it to physicians through rose-colored glasses. I was being encouraged to misinform people. And if I was misinforming doctors, that meant doctors were misinforming their patients. So there was no informed consent taking place in the medical arena.”
This behavior – seen widely across the industry – is unacceptable. Intentionally downplaying the risks associated with these drugs is unsafe for patients. In the case of OxyContin, it’s no accident that a drug so close to an opioid was presented to doctors and patients from Big Pharma as “non-addictive.” But painkillers aren’t the only drugs with potentially lethal side effects that are being overprescribed in America.
Psych-Meds: A Problem with the Pill, not the Patient
Bell speaks with David Healy, author of Pharmageddon, about how depression and bi-polar disorder are medicated in America. As Healy points out, after doctors found a cure for tuberculosis, tuberculosis went away. After many well-marketed cures for bi-polar disorder and depression, however, the disease is 5000 times more common than it was 15 years ago. Healy cautions:
“Anti-depressants don’t suit all people. If you are on an anti-depressant that doesn’t suit you, it can make you suicidal, and it can also make you homicidal. This can happen to you even if you’re a healthy volunteer taking these pills. It’s not something linked to the illness, it’s caused by the pill and the fact that the pill is the wrong pill for you.”
In our interview, Bell shared his own story about how his brother Mike was put on Paxil® for what Bell described as “relationship problems.” He said, “A doctor is ridiculous to think that a kid 20-years-old is that depressed over a girl. I mean, come on, that’s just when you fall in love and those are normal feelings at that age.” Yet because of the post-breakup blues, Mike was prescribed Paxil, an SSRI anti-depressant that Bell said changed Mike forever.
“Those psych-meds certainly changed him. After his teenage years, he didn’t act normal, and I think a lot of it had to do with those psych-meds. . . He was very smart, very normal, and there was a point in his life where we all remember that kind of changing.”
Even with lethal side effects, Big Pharma continues to promote anti-depressants in those light-hearted commercials with pillowy clouds, smiling people in green fields on a sunny day, and soft-toned narrators calmly inducing the viewer into believing they’re sick – or worse, that something is wrong with them, and their problems are beyond their control.
What these commercials communicate is this: You have a problem and you need to fix it. So how do you fix it? Drugs.
Although many people benefit from taking SSRI’s (Selective Serotonin Reuptake Inhibitors), like Zoloft® and Paxil, the drugs have numerous side-effects such as: anxiety, agitation, panic attacks, insomnia, irritability, hostility, impulsivity, akathisia (severe restlessness), hypomania, and mania. But thanks to Big Pharma’s Billion-dollar ad campaigns, Prescription Thugs tells us that 1 of every 10 Americans is now on a psych med.
That makes for 32 million Americans who are regularly taking anti-psychotic drugs.
Isn’t it dangerous – some might say sickening – to push potentially deadly drugs on people when it’s been proven that these drugs may cause irreversible side effects?
One View into a Massive Problem
In making Prescription Thugs, Bell recognizes the limits of what a movie can accomplish. One film can’t solve the world’s problems, but it can ask the right questions. And in Prescription Thugs, Bell jumpstarts a conversation our country desperately needs to have.
With so much misinformation being spread deliberately – through commercials, ghostwritten studies, and dangerous marketing tactics to doctors – Bell hopes his new movie might help someone.
“I never saw a documentary on pain killer abuse, or what it would do to me, or how it would affect me. Had I seen that documentary, at least when I was going through it, I would have been able to know and identify, ‘Oh, that’s what I saw in this movie. That’s the path that I’m travelling down.’ I had no idea, and even giving people an idea, could potentially help them down the road.”
Bell’s movie puts a face on prescription drug abuse – both his brother’s and his own. It wasn’t an easy movie to make, and it’s not an easy movie to watch, but what Bell has put together gives people important insight into the epidemic that’s hitting high schools and homes all over the country.
The documentary is full of telling statistics and moving stories. Viewers will have to decide for themselves what conclusions to draw, but Bell makes a strong case that our current practices of prescribing medications are reckless, and are not keeping people safe and healthy.
As Big Pharma continues to spend money marketing their cures, skewing studies, and buying influence in Washington, Prescription Thugs serves as a much needed voice of caution. After watching the film, it’s clear that the idea that Big Pharma is out to help people is a pill we should be wary of swallowing.