Purdue Pharma, the company that brought us OxyContin and has been targeted in lawsuits by several states over its role in causing the opioid addiction crisis, now has an opportunity to profit from providing a solution.

Just before the weekend, the Financial Times broke the story that Purdue was granted a patent for a newer, faster-acting version of buprenorphine (currently available as Buprenex, Suboxone, and other generic forms).

Among the six individuals listed as inventors of the new form of buprenorphine is Purdue’s owner and former president, Richard Sackler.  The Sackler family has long been known and even admired for supporting museums, professorships, and medical research.

However, as details of their role in creating the opioid addiction crisis have come out, public opinion is turning against them.  Earlier this summer, the Sackler family was named in a lawsuit filed by the State of Massachusetts, alleging that their company’s executives misled physicians about OxyContin’s potential for abuse, in violation of the state’s consumer protection laws.

It turns out that the Sacklers secretly own a second company in Rhode Island, known as Rhodes Pharmaceuticals.  This small, obscure drugmaker specializes in the production of generic versions of opioid that are no longer under patent.  Suboxone, a product of U.K.-based Indivior, is one such prescription medication, generating approximately $877 million in revenue from U.S. sales alone.  While buprenorphine has been successfully used alone and in combination with Naloxone to treat opioid addiction, it poses its own risk of dependence.

Buprenorphine is normally administered in a pill or on a strip that is held between the cheek and gum or under the tongue as it dissolves, releasing the medication into the bloodstream.  Rhodes Pharma’s product is a faster-acting version, contained in a thin wafer that dissolves within seconds.

Purdue introduced OxyContin in 1995. Over the next decade, the company’s flagship product was marketed aggressively, with claims that it was “less addictive” than competing products.  In 2007 (coincidentally, the same year Rhodes Pharma was established), Purdue executives admitted to “misbranding,” and paid fines and penalties to the Department of Justice amounting to over $630 million.

However, deceptive marketing of OxyContin continued, according to a whistleblower lawsuit filed by a former employee in June.  The relator in the case, Carol Panara, joined Purdue’s sales staff in 2008.  She alleges that during her training, salespeople were instructed to tell prescribing physicians that a patient in pain might experience “pseudoaddiction,” and thus would require an even higher dose of OxyContin.

Despite the fact that there is no scientific basis for the existence of such a condition, the FDA has defended Purdue, citing part of the product label warning prescribing physicians to “determine whether the behavior is part of an underlying addiction or if the behavior is related to inadequate pain control.”

In any event, this most recent development in the Purdue saga is another egregious example of how capitalism continuously creates problems in order to sell solutions.  Examples abound; for example, in the 1970s, Nestle began giving nursing mothers free samples of its fake formula long enough for their own natural breast milk to dry up – forcing them to continue using the product after the “free samples” were gone.

More recently, Monsanto began selling glyphosate-based herbicides that required farmers to buy special proprietary glyphosate-resistant seeds.  This has led to the evolution of herbicide-resistant “superweeds,” providing yet more profit opportunities for Monsanto.

The behavior of the pharmaceutical industry is particularly reprehensible in this respect.  For the past three decades, Big Pharma has been inventing “conditions” such as “restless leg syndrome,” “Attention Deficit Hyperactive Disorder,” “Low T”, and more in order to sell their “treatments” (no cures, as this would kill the geese laying their golden eggs).

Now, a company and an individual who has demonstrably created a problem that has killed hundreds of thousands stand to make even more profit by selling its own solution.

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K.J. McElrath is a former history and social studies teacher who has long maintained a keen interest in legal and social issues. In addition to writing for The Ring of Fire, he is the author of two published novels: Tamanous Cooley, a darkly comic environmental twist on Dante's Inferno, and The Missionary's Wife, a story of the conflict between human nature and fundamentalist religious dogma. When not engaged in journalistic or literary pursuits, K.J. works as an entertainer and film composer.