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NCADA executive director Howard Weissman criticizes Big Pharma’s role in opioid epidemic

Lara Hamdan | St. Louis Public Radio
Howard Weissman, executive director of St. Louis’ National Council on Alcoholism and Drug Abuse, talks about pharmacies' roles in the oppioid epidemic. ";

On Wednesday’s St. Louis on the Air, host Don Marsh continued the discussion about the opioid epidemic in St. Louis. Joining him for the discussion was Howard Weissman, executive director of St. Louis’ National Council on Alcoholism and Drug Abuse.

Weissman said the main people affected by opioid addiction are adults ages 25-45, who often have the least resources to combat the addiction.

“Unfortunately, even though there’s a lot of talk about [opioid addiction], there still isn’t a lot of action with respect to directing and diverting the resources to support real and effective change,” he said.

Weissman said his concern with pharmaceutical companies has to do with the unregulated and unmonitored selling of the product to the public. He said pharmaceutical industries persuaded doctors that opioids were safe to use long-term.

“The vast, vast majority of doctors only want to help their patients. But you cannot underestimate how much doctors have been influenced by aggressive marketing by Big Pharma,” he said. Doctors went from prescribing opioids for short periods of times to prescribing long lasting opioids for chronic conditions.

But some pharmaceutical companies are trying to change that. Pharmacy benefit manager company Express Scripts has its own opioid initiative. Their efforts are designed to get people off of opioid medication.

“They’re reaching out to people at home, they’re working at the pharmacy level and they’re working with these folks’ doctors,” he said. “That’s extraordinary. It’s nice to see that we have a good corporate citizen here in St. Louis.”

This is not the first time the United States has been in an opioid epidemic. In the 19th century, wounded soldiers from the Civil War became dependent on morphine. Heroin then became introduced as the cure to morphine addiction.

Weissman said increased legislation helped curb that epidemic, including the Pure Food and Drug Act and Harrison Narcotics Act.

“The way out that time … was increased government regulation,” he said. “Doctors then, and only then, started prescribing opioids for very short periods of time.”

Missouri is the only state that doesn’t have an official prescription drug monitoring program. Gov. Eric Greitens signed an executive order to establish a state-wide database using Express Scripts data. The program determines what doctors or pharmacies are dispensing large amounts of opioids, but it doesn’t track patient information, which doesn’t help in preventing doctor shopping.

However, Weissman said he approves of St. Louis County’s program established by St. Louis County's health director Dr. Faisal Khan.

“But until Jefferson City gets its act together and passes a state-wide program, we’re going to continue to be a national embarrassment,” Weissman said.

Listen below for the full discussion and to hear personal stories from those affected by the opioid epidemic:


St. Louis on the Air brings you the stories of St. Louis and the people who live, work and create in our region. St. Louis on the Air host Don Marsh and producers Mary EdwardsAlex Heuer and Lara Hamdan give you the information you need to make informed decisions and stay in touch with our diverse and vibrant St. Louis region.

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Lara is the Engagement Editor at St. Louis Public Radio.
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