A different health-politics interface

When the subject of drug abuse comes up, either in private conversation or in public discourse, the specific issue these days might very well be the danger of prescription opioids as opposed to usual-suspect “street” addictives like heroin, cocaine or meth.

That opioid addiction and overdose is a growing substance-abuse problem is one of the worst-kept secrets in the culture. Prescription pain medications have contributed to the deaths of an estimated 165,000 Americans over the last decade.

While unauthorized use and distribution of these drugs is illegal, their manufacture is not, nor should it be. Prescription medications to ease patients’ pain from disease, injury or surgical healing are a necessary part of responsible physicians’ practice.

Where it gets complicated is, not surprisingly, in the realm of politics. An investigation by the Associated Press and the Center for Public Integrity showed that efforts to more tightly regulate distribution of opiods are overwhelmed by well-funded lobbying by makers of the drugs.

Between 2006 and 2015, AP reported, drug companies that manufacture prescription pain medications spent $880 million nationwide on lobbying and campaign contributions. In Georgia, these companies and “related advocacy groups” have been represented by an average of more than 40 lobbyists a year.

In all, the AP-CPI study found, the drug companies outspent advocates for stricter controls by a margin of more than 200 to 1.

Pfizer, with a manufacturing plant in Albany, spent $622,686 in Georgia from 2006 through 2015, according to campaign and lobbyist disclosure reports. How much of such spending, by Pfizer or any other pharmaceutical company, is related to opioid manufacture and how much to other issues is of course impossible to determine.

All but lost between concerns about abuse, overdose and illegal trafficking on the one hand, and political maneuvering over policies and profits on the other, are the people whose pain pill prescriptions are not drug abuse, but legitimate and necessary medication to relieve genuine pain. They are the ones who would most suffer from political overreaction resulting in draconian overregulation.

But the problem is real and getting worse. The Centers for Disease Control reports more than 9,100 drug overdose fatalities in the years 2006-2014; more alarming, the rate increased 45 percent.

There’s no breakdown of how many of those overdose deaths were due to prescription drugs, as opposed to methamphetamine, cocaine, heroin or, in many cases, lethal combinations. But the majority of fatal overdoses were attributed to heroin and opioids.

If there are reasons for lawmakers to proceed with caution in further regulating prescription pain drugs, those reasons should involve sound science, not lobbyist largess.

Footnote: This is a state where policy regarding the medicinal use of cannabis, to treat a catalogue of ailments for which it has been proven effective, has progressed at a glacial pace. Surely the fact that there is no well-funded cannabis lobby had nothing to do with that.