Fact Check: No, ‘Unfettered Capitalism’ Did Not Create the Opioid Crisis

CLAIM: “Unfettered capitalism” created the opioid crisis because greedy pharmaceutical companies sought profits at the expense of public health.

VERDICT: False. While pharmaceutical companies share the blame, the opioid crisis was also the result of bad government policy, a porous southern border, and improper medical guidance.

Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-VT) claimed at the fourth Democrat debate on Tuesday evening that the opioid crisis was the result of “unfettered capitalism,” and that the only answer was a “political revolution.”

Other Democratic candidates made similar statements, with Sen. Kamala Harris (D-CA) casting pharmaceutical companies as the villains. Even businessman Andrew Yang piled on, calling the opioid crisis “”capitalism run amok” (which has not stopped him from taking campaign donations from employees of pharmaceutical companies, according to OpenSecrets.org).

Pharmaceutical companies certainly share the blame, and some are now agreeing to pay billions of dollars in fines.

However, there are other important causes of the opioid epidemic:

1. Government regulatory failure. As HuffPost noted in 2017, the opioid crisis was partly created by government policy — starting with President Bill Clinton. HuffPost recalled: “In 1997, at the start of Bill Clinton’s second term, his FDA relaxed its rules to allow specific-drug-for-specific-ailment claims. Clinton’s oversight of the industry was so lax that Purdue was promoting OxyContin on giveaway swag like beach hats, coffee mugs, and fanny packs, a marketing scheme that didn’t cease until Purdue was fined over it in 2007 following consumer lawsuits.” Later, even as Americans were drying, President Barack Obama failed to declare a public health emergency for fentanyl.

2. A porous southern border. The absence of border security along the frontier with Mexico allowed illegal drugs to be smuggled into the United States in massive quantities. Mexican drug cartels thrived, developing networks deep into the heartland of America, often exploiting connections within the growing illegal alien population.

3. Improper medical guidance. As strange as it may seem today, the conventional medical wisdom two decades ago was that doctors were prescribing too few painkillers, not too many. The National Institutes of Health called pain published articles with titles such as, “The undertreatment of pain.” Some physicians described pain medication as a “human right.” In the mid-1990s, the American Pain Society focused on “raising awareness that patients with pain were undertreated.” The Joint Commission on Accreditation of Healthcare Organizations, a non-profit that is responsible for certifying hospitals in many states to receive Medicare and Medicaid reimbursements, called pain management a “right” for patients as late as 2001. Many doctors reacted accordingly by prescribing more opioids.

Arguably, government failure, not “unfettered capitalism,” led to the opioid epidemic. In fact, doctors who followed the best government guidance might have over-prescribed opioids, believing — because they had been told as much — that they were doing the best thing for patients.

Notably, President Donald Trump has led a successful fight against opioid addiction nationwide. For the first time in 30 years, deaths from addiction have begun to decline — and border security is finally a top government priority.

Joel B. Pollak is Senior Editor-at-Large at Breitbart News. He earned an A.B. in Social Studies and Environmental Science and Public Policy from Harvard College, and a J.D. from Harvard Law School. He is a winner of the 2018 Robert Novak Journalism Alumni Fellowship. He is also the co-author of How Trump Won: The Inside Story of a Revolution, which is available from Regnery. Follow him on Twitter at @joelpollak.

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