While the influence of big money in politics can be felt throughout our democracy, few of its effects are as devastating as the deadly opioid crisis—which kills more than 100 Americans every day and is undeniably linked to the billions of dollars drug companies spend to influence the FDA and Congress.
The opioid epidemic has become the deadliest drug crisis in U.S. history. Approximately 130 Americans die every day from opioid overdoses, and millions more battle addiction to opioid drugs, including the commonly prescribed painkiller OxyContin, the ultra-powerful synthetic pharmaceutical fentanyl, and their illegal counterpart, heroin.
The pharmaceutical companies that manufacture and distribute prescription opioids have been major contributors to the epidemic. Not only do they profit from sales of these highly addictive drugs, they run aggressive, multi-pronged marketing campaigns designed to increase drug prescriptions and use, publicly minimizing risks, working to sway doctors, and funding “unbiased research.”
Meanwhile these pharmaceutical companies pour huge quantities of money into the political system—supporting politicians and policies that favor reduced regulatory requirements, faster drug approvals, and ever-increasing drug prices. The pharmaceutical industry ranks “consistently near the top when it comes to federal campaign contributions” and donates an average of $30 million every year to congressional candidates.
Drugmakers’ ability to use their corporate coffers to influence politicians, policy, and the medical industry is harmful to the American public. Big money in politics has been a catalyst for the opioid epidemic, which is one of many reasons why the citizen-led movement behind the 28th Amendment aims to restore the voices of everyday Americans in democracy. Read on to learn about three of the major players in the tragedy of big money and the opioid epidemic—and how you can join the movement to get big money out of politics.
Drug Manufacturers: Lobbying and Lawsuits
Purdue Pharma, manufacturer of the addictive opioid OxyContin, now faces legal challenges for playing a central role in the opioid crisis. Despite receiving early reports about “significant” abuse of OxyContin, Purdue continued aggressive and misleading marketing to assure the public about the drug’s safety.
The company has been owned for generations by members of the Sackler family, which built its $13 billion empire primarily from OxyContin sales. Known for high-profile donations to institutions such as the Guggenheim and the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the family is also well-known in the political world for its widespread congressional lobbying efforts. The Center for Public Integrity reports that the Purdue political powerhouse has “spent more than $880 million nationwide on lobbying and campaign contributions from 2006 through 2015” in order to protect its profits against regulatory interference.
With the opioid crisis continuing to claim more lives and media attention, the Sacklers face lawsuits from attorneys general in multiple states and widespread protests that demand they be held accountable for their role in creating the opioid crisis.
The FDA: Weakening Regulations and Compromised Integrity
With its responsibility for approving and regulating pharmaceutical drugs, the Food and Drug Administration has been the gatekeeper for the opioid crisis. As part of the federal government, the agency is vulnerable to the political influence of wealthy corporations.
The FDA recently came under intense scrutiny for risking lives by approving potent, highly addictive opioids. In an interview with The Guardian earlier this year, Dr. Raeford Brown, chair of the opioid advisory committee, revealed “a war” within the agency as it continues to put “the interests of narcotics manufacturers ahead of public health, most recently by approving a ‘terrible drug,’ Dsuvia, in a process he alleged was manipulated.”
The FDA’s standards have deteriorated over recent years as the agency’s regulatory authority has weakened. Meanwhile, relationships between pharmaceutical industry representatives and FDA officials have grown closer. Drug companies compromise the integrity of the FDA’s obligations to the public by contributing to their operations, according to Harvard’s Edmond J. Safra Center for Ethics, which finds there is “systematic, quantitative evidence that since the [pharmaceutical] industry started making large contributions to the FDA for reviewing its drugs, as it makes large contributions to Congressmen who have promoted this substitution for publicly funded regulation, the FDA has sped up the review process with the result that drugs approved are significantly more likely to cause serious harm, hospitalizations, and deaths.”
Politicians: Hidden Money and Committee Influence
Nearly every industry seeks to influence policies that will benefit its business interests, but pharmaceutical companies are top political spenders and unite to support practices that benefit the industry at the expense of consumers. Despite growing public pressure for lower drug prices and increased transparency, the influx of money from the pharmaceutical industry has only increased in recent years; lobbyists for the drug industry contributed a record total of nearly $282 million in 2018. These big spenders primarily target lawmakers who lead committees that oversee health care and drug policy, and while elected officials may reject this money in public, they often accept contributions behind the scenes.
The corrupting influence of special interests like the pharmaceutical industry has only worsened since the 2010 Citizens United Supreme Court ruling protected money as free political speech under the First Amendment. With unlimited political spending fueling the loosening of regulations, policy decisions that favor industry over people, and the power wielded by pharmaceutical companies it may seem like the system is beyond repair.
But the citizen-led campaign for the 28th Amendment offers a solution to the symptoms of a democracy increasingly run by the power of wealthy corporations and special interests. Learn more here about how you can get involved in this nonpartisan, local and national movement to create meaningful reform in our democracy so we can address the issues in the healthcare system and beyond.