Big Pharma – oh, how we love to hate you. The corporate behemoth that is the pharmaceutical industry has morphed into a gargantuan force in American politics and business yielding immense power. Fortune magazine, itself hardly a pantheon of progressive or alternative thinking, wrote in January 2017 how the much-maligned Big Pharma lobby was doing everything possible on Capitol Hill and beyond to reverse its tarnished reputation. Interestingly, the emphasis was on how Big Pharma’s reputation had been sullied due to the huge price hikes of many drugs in 2016. This singular focus on the financial is typical of a corporate and money markets cheerleader such as Fortune. What the article deftly avoided was the huge elephant in Big Pharma’s waiting room, i.e. how America is being swept by addictions and deaths due to prescription drugs on a horrific and epidemic scale.
Like corporate and political America, Hollywood has been fairly mute on the issue of Big Pharma, addiction and the prescription drug epidemic. Try and name one Hollywood movie made in recent years with any big star names and with those themes at its center. No, we couldn’t either. However, on the fringes of the indie filmmaking world there has been a recent slate of documentaries that have taken on Big Pharma and the drug prescription crisis that is maiming America. Perhaps you’ve seen or heard some of them. We’d like to review three of them here, if only because they deserve as much exposure as they can get.
The HBO documentary Warning: This Drug May Kill You (2017) by Perri Peltz has an opening montage that shows people slumped or dying on streets, in buses, in their cars, on supermarket floors in their opiate-induced hazes or comas. It is harrowing to watch as distraught babies cry in the background and total strangers try desperately to revive people clearly on the verge of near-death. The documentary reveals how the prescription drug epidemic was fuelled by an aggressive and successful 1990s campaign led by Purdue Pharma that sought to promote the widespread use of opioids to treat pain on the basis that there was ‘no discernible danger’ of addiction by patients (read here about this company and its nefarious 1996 launch of Oxycontin). The so-called ‘pain epidemic’ has spurred on the disease of addiction in what the New York Times has called “America’s 50-state epidemic”.
Big Lie: American Addict 2 (2016) is directed by Sasha Knezev and it takes an interesting look at how the prevalence and ‘legality’ of prescription drugs masks a multitude of overdoses and addicted people all over America. It also charts the number of Hollywood stars who have died of overdoses predominantly due to prescription drugs – the list is long and includes actors like Philip Seymour Hoffman, Heath Ledger, Robin Williams, and others. Illicit drugs were often in the picture too, but too often opioids were the gateway drugs in use. TV star Matthew Perry speaks candidly of how his alcoholism transformed into opiate abuse because it was “easier to hide” and “more acceptable” for him to do so. The documentary even asks the fascinating question: how many children and adults who have gone on shooting sprees were actually on or addicted to prescription drugs when they went on their murderous rampages?
Prescription Thugs (2015) is directed by Chris Bell, a former pro wrestler who started to investigate why so many pro wrestlers, his older brother included, were dying due to drugs. But it wasn’t steroids that were killing these men but prescription drugs. Invariably, these were drugs that had been prescribed for pain. After all, imagine the immense pain that pro wrestlers have to live with. Particularly revealing were interviews Bell had with Gwen Olsen, a former pharmaceutical rep of fifteen years and who wrote the tell-all book Confessions of an Rx Drug Pusher. Olsen is quoted as saying, “I was a drug pusher. I was just doing it legally”. Her impassioned plea for everyone to take a stand against Big Pharma and its peddling of prescription drugs is rousing to say the least.
These brave documentaries need to keep getting made. And we need to make every effort to see them. Education is knowledge and knowledge is power. Big Pharma and the havoc that its products are wreaking on ordinary people suffering from ailments ranging from chronic or acute pain to mental and psychological issues is America’s dirty and open secret. This is a multi-billion dollar industry that is clearly mandated by shareholders and government to profit from the pain, physical and emotional, of people. Why do we continue to abide by this?
In closing, we quote New Zealand author and filmmaker James Morcan who wrote that, “Big Pharma needs sick people to prosper. Patients, not healthy people, are their customers.