Our Drug Problem

Sustainability  |  03/12/2016

America’s Pharmaceutical Problem: We’re All Full of Crap

In a world where properly functioning bowels are aces, Americans using pharmaceutical products are struggling to drop a deuce.

Constipation is a surprisingly serious issue in the United States. According to Health.com 15% to 20% of Americans suffer from chronic constipation as of 2015 – that’s 60 million people! Bowels made to hold only a few pounds of material at a time can amazingly back up with more than 10 pounds of dry waste matter. In addition to being extremely uncomfortable chronic constipation can lead to a wide variety of additional health issues from hemorrhoids to colorectal cancer. So what is contributing to our inability to consummate a constitutional?

the face of pharmaceutical constipation
The Face of Chronic Constipation?

According to WebMD and Health.com there are many potential causes of constipation, starting of course with a diet of processed foods. Many Americans opting for a fast food fix during a rampant workday are missing the nutrients, fiber and gut bacteria to properly process their food. Of course, a sedentary lifestyle is a contributing factor as well. Considering Americans spend an average of five hours a day catatonic in front of the television, this is not surprising. Nor is the fact that constipation is often caused by dehydration. What is somewhat alarming is the fact that prescription and over-the-counter drugs appear to be a primary culprit.

Health.com lists painkillers, antacids, anti-depressants, blood pressure drugs, allergy medications and wait for it – laxative overuse – among the primary causes of constipation. Harris H. McIlwain, a Tampa-based rheumatologist and author of the new book A Diet for a Pain-Free Life explains on WebMD, “The most common medications that aggravate constipation are narcotic analgesics like codeine and Tylenol (Tylenol #3), oxycodone (Oxycontin), proposyphene and acetaminophen (Darvocet), and hydromophone (Dilaudid), which are sometimes used for severe pain of osteoarthritis, inflammatory arthritis, disc disease, and other problems. Because these stronger pain medications are known to cause chronic constipation, many physicians go ahead and treat the constipation at the same time the pain medications are prescribed – before chronic constipation develops and becomes severe and unmanageable.” So according to this doctor we should refuse optional means of pain management & digestive health and take laxative pills before we know if we need them, check.

Big pharma is parading a plethora of pills to produce poop and leading the nation in unintentional humor in the process. The latest entry into the field is a group of drugs targeting Opioid Induced Constipation (OIC), which apparently is such a big issue that a conglomerate including two pharmaceutical giants shelled-out $9 million a minute to advertise during this year’s Super Bowl. Wrap your head around this for a minute. For this ad to make sense there must be millions of people on opioids, let alone with OIC. In 2012 there were 259 million prescriptions written for opioids, which is more than enough for every American adult to have their own bottle.  According to the U.S. Pain Foundation nearly 8 million people on opioids suffer from related constipation, or approximately 40% of the 20 million using these drugs. The foundation’s founder Paul Gileno estimates this figure to be low, as people often try to self-medicate with over-the-counter and natural remedies.

Side Effects of pharmaceutical Oxycodone
Maybe Pain Ain’t So Bad After All

Add constipation to the lengthy lists of side effects for most drugs, which often include maladies worse than those the drug was originally intended to treat. Most of these side effects require additional medications, but some do not. For example, taking Lyrica for muscle pain could lead to “suicidal ideation.” That is, if you take this stuff you might want take a self-induced dirt nap. Popping Humira or Enbrel to treat arthritis could give you cancer and a host of other issues, but Humira alone garners $8 Billion a year so who cares? I’m sure the families of the 45 people who died of fungal diseases from taking arthritis drugs Humira, Enbrel, Remicade and Cimzia are just glad they no longer have to deal with pain. Arthritis sufferers may also remember a little gem called Vioxx, a drug that was prescribed often in 1999 and the early 2000s until they found that it was causing people to die from heart attacks and strokes. At least they pulled that one from the shelves.

Understanding that the ultimate goal of any corporation is profit, it’s no surprise that the pharmaceutical industry is doing everything it can to increase revenue and margin. One of the most successful methods by which they are doing this is called “disease mongering,” or widening the diagnostic boundaries of illnesses and aggressively promoting their awareness to expand markets. This is why it seems that every time you turn on the television there’s a new drug to treat a condition you’d never heard of.

pharmaceutical Restless Leg Syndrome
Restless Leg Syndrome – Suddenly a Big Thing

We didn’t have issues with erectile dysfunction until 1998 but then came the blue pill with a bang, advertised heavily the year after direct-to-consumer drug advertising was given the go-ahed in 1997. There are 23 medications available for Restless Leg Syndrome (RLS), a condition that supposedly affects 10% of the population and had never been heard of a few years back. A friend of ours actually contracted this odd affliction as a result of taking prescribed antidepressants, imagine that. Perhaps the rise in RLS is related to the fact that antidepressant prescriptions have skyrocketed worldwide in recent years.

Danny Glover has an awareness campaign pitching a drug to treat Pseudobulbar Affect or PBA, a condition in which people experience sudden outbursts of laugher or crying for no apparent reason. While PBA sounds challenging to say the least, you can bet this drug will be prescribed for everything down to moodiness soon. After all, anyone emotionally less than calmly elated at all times obviously needs help, especially our children.

It’s rare to come across a child who isn’t taking something for Attention Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder or ADHD. Certainly not all cases are fallacious but the doctors seem to be doling these pills out for nervous ticks. From 2003 to 2011 there was a 43% increase in ADHD diagnoses among children 5-17 years of age and a 52% increase among adolescents. You can pin some of that increase on a child’s reaction to the increasingly chaotic nature of our society and some on lazy parenting, but that certainly doesn’t account for the rest.

pharmaceutical Antibiotic Resistance
Antibiotic Resistance and Bacteria

Antibiotics are also being prescribed like candy despite issues with resistance. That is, overuse of antibiotics is making the bugs resistant to them and in turn requiring new, stronger antibiotics to kill them. We met a woman in Ohio recently who is suffering through a life in which her skin feels like it is on fire 24-7 due to antibiotic prescriptions. Of course she has bee prescribed many other medications to deal with the pain, making her a prime candidate to experience some chronic constipation as well. It also makes her a prime candidate for opioid addiction, which has become an enormous national problem.

According to the NY Times, opioids were involved in more than 61% of 47,055 deaths that occurred from drug overdoses in 2014 or 28,703 deaths. Deaths from heroin overdoses have more than tripled since 2010 and are double the rate of deaths from cocaine. The Center for Disease Control (CDC) states that the largest increase in opioid overdose deaths in 2014 involved synthetic opioids (not including methadone), which were involved in 5,500 deaths – nearly twice as many as the year prior. Many of these overdoses are believed to be related to fentanyl, the sledgehammer of opioids.

Doctors are prescribing painkillers more often, people are getting hooked, and those who cannot afford to get another prescription are switching to heroin. According to the American Society of Addiction Medicine (ASAM) four in five new heroin users started out on prescription painkillers. Heroin overdose deaths nearly quadrupled from 2000 to 2013. During this 14-year period the rate of heroin overdose increased an average of 6% per year from 2000 to 2010, followed by three years of whopping annual increases of 37% from 2010 to 2013. You can now grab a bag of heroin on many American street corners for less than the cost of a pack of smokes, so it should surprise no one to learn that 94% of respondents to a 2014 survey of people in treatment for opioid addiction said they chose to use heroin because prescription opioids were “far more expensive and harder to obtain.” A group that is not finding opioids harder to obtain is teenagers.

pharmaceutical needle
The Needle and the Damage Done

Because prescription pills live in the medicine cabinet of many homes they’re easily found by children. In 2014, 467,000 adolescents were active nonmedical users of prescription pain relievers, with 168,000 earning an addiction to them. Most adolescents who misuse prescription pain relievers are given them for free by a friend or relative who is presumably unaware of the dangers of these things. Sadly, the doctors who do know how dangerous opioids are have been prescribing them to adolescents much more often. From 1994 to 2007 the number of opiates prescribed to adolescents and young adults nearly doubled. In 2012 2.91% of all U.S. teens had an opiate prescription. That’s a total of roughly 9 million kids! It’s no wonder we are now seeing Naloxone, an emergency opioid overdose treatment for sale over the counter and even distributed for free.

The ancillary benefits of our widespread increase in drug addiction include homelessness and long lines at the methadone clinic. There are many lawmakers calling for increases in Medication-Assisted Treatment (MAT) program reimbursements to respond to increasing numbers of addicts in many states with drugs like methadone, and the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) published a proposed rule in January to expand access to another MAT treatment called buprenorphine. Buprenophine (suboxone), methadone and naltrexone are the three drugs currently approved by the Food & Drug Administration (FDA) for use in weening people off of opiates in MAT programs. Naltrexone is an opiate blocker that isn’t very popular due to its inability to soften withdrawal symptoms and cravings. The other two, buprenophine and methadone are synthetic opiates. That’s right, the best treatment we can come up with to ween people off opiates is using other addictive opiates. It shouldn’t surprise you to learn that methadone addiction is a serious and increasing problem in the U.S.
Methadone addiction rose sevenfold from 1999 to 2009 and currently kills around 5,000 people a year. That’s six times as many people as it killed in the late 1990s when it was prescribed almost exclusively for use in hospitals and addiction clinics where it was tightly controlled. According to data gathered by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) methadone is involved in one out of every three accidental overdose deaths. Methadone is four times as likely to cause an overdose death as oxycodone, and more than twice as likely as morphine. It’s making good money for Roxane Laboratories though, which is apparently out trying to encourage doctors to prescribe their methadone concoction Dolphine to treat pain.
Oddly the White House refers to methadone as “medicine” as does the World Health Organization (WHO) which placed methadone on it’s “List of Essential Medicines.” That’s pretty high praise for a drug with a lengthy kill-list that is considered by many to be the most addictive of all opiates. While synthetic methadone is considered a “medicine” by the White House despite killing 5,000 people a year and a causing a host of dangerous and life-threatening side effects, a natural medicine called Cannabis that has been used for millennia for a wide variety of ailments is still listed on Schedule I of the Controlled Substances Act – the most tightly restricted category reserved for drugs which have “no currently accepted medical use.” Recent research contradicts this viewpoint and indicates a host of medicinal benefits to Cannabis, validating the use of this plant as a medicine by cultures for nearly 5000 years that we know of.
Cannabis: Dangerous Only to Pharmaceutical Industry
Cannabis: Dangerous Only to Pharmaceutical Industry

The earliest mention of Cannabis as a popular ancient medicine was recorded in 2900 BC by Chinese Emperor Fu Hsi, the emperor credited with bringing civilization to China. Egyptians in 1213 BC recorded the use of Cannabis for glaucoma, inflammation and enemas. In 1000 BC we have records confirming the use of Bhang – Cannabis and milk – as an anesthetic in India. The ancient Chinese text Pen Ts’ao Ching from 1 AD depicts marijuana as an ideogram of plants drying in a shed and recommends marijuana for more than 100 ailments including gout, rheumatism, malaria, and absentmindedness. Even Jesus may have used Cannabis.

Christ was anointed with chrism, a cannabis-based oil, that may have aided or induced his spiritual visions. You can find the ancient recipe for this oil in Exodus from the Bible. It included extracting over 9lb of flowering cannabis tops known as “kaneh-bosem” in Hebrew with about 10 pints of olive oil and a variety of other herbs and spices. Residues of cannabis have been detected in vessels from Judea and Egypt in a context indicating medicinal and visionary use.

George Washington and Thomas Jefferson both grew hemp, and in 1840 Queen Victoria reportedly used Marijuana to treat menstrual cramps. In 1894 the Indian Hemp Commission issued a report mentioning the use of cannabis as an “analgesic, a restorer of energy, a hemostat, an ecbolic [to induce contractions], and an antidiaretic.” Cannabis is also mentioned in this document as an aid in “treating hay fever, cholera, dysentery, gonorrhea, diabetes, impotence, urinary incontinence, swelling of the testicles, granulation of open sores, and chronic ulcers. Other beneficial effects attributed to cannabis are prevention of insomnia, relief of anxiety, protection against cholera, alleviation of hunger and as an aid to concentration of attention.” With all these benefits, how did Cannabis ever become so feared?

In the early 1900s corporate interests like those of the wealthy DuPont family supporting industries competing with hemp and hemp oil began to lobby strongly against Cannabis. This effort took off with the distribution of propaganda pamphlets, hand-outs, and sensational fictional media accounts in the newspapers of lumber and newspaper magnate William Randolph Hearst in the 1930s. The purposeful generation of anti-Cannabis hysteria is best exemplified by a hilarious unintentional comedy produced in 1936 called Reefer Madness.

When the Volstead Act was repealed in 1933, blatant racist Hearst and his corporate cohorts gave our prohibition-expanded police force something else to focus on, attributing Cannabis use and promotion to inner-city minority hoodlums. Our official policy on Cannabis has not changed much since then save for our official classification of this medicine as a Schedule 1 drug in 1970, despite science validating ancient claims. Thankfully there is currently some fervor to move Cannabis to Schedule 2 classification from the Schedule 1 list, where it currently resides next to LSD, heroin and ecstasy. Oddly our government views Methadone, a Schedule 2 opiate that kills 5,000 people a year as a valuable “medicine” that is much less dangerous than Cannabis – a plant with numerous health benefits that continues to kill zero people each year and has also recently been discussed as a viable alternative to methadone for treatment of opioid addiction. Can our “leaders” really be this asinine, or is there something more at work?

While you can get an opioid prescription for pain anywhere in this nation and pay for it with insurance, you cannot choose a holistic path to pain relief unless you pay for it yourself. This includes the use of Cannabis, which is still very illegal in most states. Obamacare was ushered in with praise for its claim to support preventative medicine, though preventative holistic medicine and exercise are still not covered by the vast majority of available health insurance plans. The best possible customer base for pharmaceutical companies is a population that lives a long life, but a long life laden with ailments requiring medications. As long as those medications are sold by them. It sounds insidious, but the proof is in the pudding.

Many assume the big money behind the effort to prevent national legalization of Cannabis comes from the tobacco and alcohol industry, but this is not the case – in fact many of these companies are trying to enter the Cannabis industry. Organizations lobbying most avidly against Cannabis legalization like the friendly-sounding Partnership for Drug Free Kids and Community Anti-Drug Coalition of America (CADCA) derive budget from the pharmaceutical giants producing opioids and other synthetic drugs that are far more dangerous than the Cannabis that would render them obsolete. The government is merely helping the pharmaceutical industry protect its profit margin, just like it did in the days of DuPont and Hearst. It may be facilitating far more.

Recently there’s been a dust-up over the fact that many believe big pharma is garnering profit from vaccinations that cause autism. Robert DeNiro pulled a documentary on the subject called Vaxxed: From Cover-Up to Catastrophe from his Tribeca festival, making many assume he was pressured to do so. There are 22 medical studies showing how vaccines can cause autism but the CDC contends these are all false. Either DeNiro agrees with the CDC that this research is invalid or this is a really awful documentary. While it seems fantastic to think that vaccines could be responsible for autism and other ailments, judging from the track record and obvious goals of pharmaceutical companies it is highly possible, perhaps even probable. After all, consider what the industry has done to choke us with fluoride, a substance that is more poisonous than lead and almost as poisonous as arsenic. Fluoride is added to our water supply for no apparent reason and has been shown to cause brain damage, reproductive issues, lowered IQ and early puberty among other things. Even its ability to fight cavities is in question. One undeniable benefit of fluoride is an uptick in the profit column of the companies selling it.

The Real Face of Big Pharma
The Happy Face of Big Pharma

The pharmaceutical industry is playing all sides: Creating medications that cause maladies requiring new medications, facilitating addiction, expanding diagnosis to prescribe existing drugs to new customers and actively fighting any competitive natural or holistic avenues to health. The “why” is obvious, but how are they getting away with it? Well, it costs about a billion dollars to get a drug through the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) approval process so it behooves a company to have friends on the inside. And shitloads of money. These companies have plenty of both.

Last year the top 10 pharmaceutical companies cleared $98.8 billion in profit alone. The pharmaceutical industry is tied with banks at the top of the profiteering ladder gobbling up an average of 18% profit on pills, with top performer Pfizer clearing 42% margin. With that kind of scratch there are plenty of politicians you can buy. That’s why there are so many former pharmaceutical executives in the FDA and visa versa, making the process of approving a drug akin to two frat bros high-fiving while taking turns with a sheep. Unfortunately, we’re the sheep. Drug execs join the FDA and grease the approval process, then leave to take a high paying job as a consultant to help other firms pass their poison for a price. It’s no different than the issues caused by our president appointing a GMO company executive to oversee our food supply: Ever wonder why the rest of the world bans Genetically Modified Organisms (GMO) foods yet we cannot even pass a law to make companies label them?

The revolving door systems we’ve created to allow wealthy corporate entities to mainline money are repeatedly showing us that profit is more important that people, and this is nowhere more obvious than it is in the pharmaceutical industry. The fact that questionable concoctions like those above are still on the market revives images of the dominant-submissive album cover for Spinal Tap’s Smell the Glove, and it’s time we stopped sniffing. Drugs that pass FDA approval should not kill people, let alone be accompanied with laundry lists of side effects worse than the malady they were supposedly made to treat. It’s enough to cause the kind of stress and frustration that can contribute to chronic constipation. Thankfully, there’s a drug for that.


UPDATE: December 18, 2016

Of course there actually IS a drug for that now. It’s called Movantik and it’s being widely advertised on a television near you. Humorously it is billed as a specific treatment for OIC, indicating that the constipation caused by opioids needs a special kind of coaxing. Side effects of Movantik include nausea, diarrhea, headaches and vomiting – so you really have to be interested in dropping a deuce to take this stuff. Keep your eyes open for a line of drugs to treat the vomiting caused by Opioid Induced Constipation Laxatives (OICLs) soon.


*If you feel motivated to take action against corruption and collusion, the Center for the Advancement of Public Integrity at Columbia lists many organizations that appear worthy of support.


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