Prescription Thugs: New Documentary Shows Big Pharma's Role in Addiction and Tragedy

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Prescription Thugs: New Documentary Shows Big Pharma's Role in Addiction and Tragedy

By Amy Dresner 01/22/16

When they stopped creating Oxycontin that could be crushed, snorted or injected, Oxycontin lost 80% of its revenue.

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Prescription Thugs

“Welcome to the United States of Addiction,” Chris Bell says in the opening of his new thought-provoking and terrifying exposé-documentary. “America is only 5% of the world’s population but we consume 75% of the world’s pharmaceutical drugs.”

It was Wednesday, January 13, and I was at the Hollywood ArcLight theater for a packed invite-only screening for the LA premiere of Prescription Thugs, presented by Samuel Goldwyn Films. Bell, who’s known for his 2008 film, Bigger Stronger Faster which examined the pervasive use of anabolic steroids in sports, was now investigating the entire pharmaceutical drug industry: the lies, the money, the abuse. It’s an important film, not just for addicts but for anybody who takes medication…and that’s pretty much everyone.

The film begins trailing Chris’s big brother, Mike, a former wrestler who never achieved the fame he wanted. A "jobber," he’d been on television 250 times and lost 250 times. He got hooked on pain meds from an injury, which started his long battle with addiction. He’d been in-and-out of rehab so often that at the time of the filming his father admitted, “I’m prepared for his death.” Mike tells Chris that his “biggest fear is being average. I’d rather be dead thancl be average.” Well, the Grim Reaper called him on that bluff and weeks later, Mike was found dead from an accidental overdose. The pain from his brother’s death is partly what motivated Chris to make this film.

In addition to interviews with pro-wrestlers like Horshu (whose morning “smorgasbord” consisted of five Vicodins, three Somas, two Viagra and two Cialis until he suffered a stroke in 2009), Chris introduces us to pro-athletes like Jeff Hatch of the NFL, and UFC champ Chris Leben who both admit originally taking prescription painkillers to overcome sports injuries only to become quickly addicted. Chris interviews a variety of people, young and old, all prescription drug addicts. “DARE doesn’t address prescription drugs,” 18-year-old Colby Lamb tells him. Lamb was put on opiates at 15 for a shattered femur. Dusty Ray, a fortysomething dad and Percocet addict, confesses, “There are all these people checked out on pain pills, on autopilot but they think it’s okay because they have a ‘hall pass,’ a prescription from the doctor.”

Chris talks to a pharmacist who’s been in the business for 25 years: “I used to [dispense] a handful of Oxys a day. Now I do a handful an hour…One patient had been to 78 doctors.”

“When they stopped making Oxycontin in the crushable form, where you could shoot it, and snort it, and smoke it, Oxycontin lost 80% of its revenue,” Richard Taite, founder of Cliffside Malibu, tells Chris. “So what does that tell you? Eighty percent of people using that drug are using it in a way that it is not intended.” Unfortunately there are many doctors who profit by keeping people sick, Taite explains. These doctors, whom he terms “addictionologists,” just write scripts for money; they can make up to $6 million per year doing it.

At this point, Chris turns the camera on himself and lets us in on his own demons: the multiple dents on his truck from driving loaded, the hip replacement surgery that got his pill addiction started. “It starts with medicating the pain but then it goes into liking the feeling,” he admits.

The problem is much larger than just the doctors writing the scripts or the patients abusing the pills. In the past 10 years, the top 11 biggest drug companies made over a staggering $711 billion. Big money is involved in this and so is the FDA. President Reagan lifted the ban on direct to consumer (DTC) advertising of pharmaceutical drugs, all while the First Lady was pushing her “Just Say No” campaign. And then President Clinton loosened things up even more. You know those creepy ads that list 79 symptoms that we all have at some time and then say “Ask your doctor if _______ is right for you?” Well that kind of DTC drug ad is banned in every country except for the US and New Zealand. And if you go in and “ask your doctor," turns out that a whopping 75% of the time they will give you the drug you requested.

And why no ads for the Oxy drugs? Simple. They don’t need them. “Those drugs sell themselves,” explains Gwen Olsen, former pharmaceutical rep and author of Confessions of an Rx Drug Pusher. “There is a misconception that the pharmaceutical industry is about health and healing. It’s not. It’s about disease management and symptom maintenance.” Olsen reveals that statin drugs to reduce cholesterol are not necessarily helpful. “You can actually die earlier if your cholesterol is too low.” And what’s the number one side effect of statin drugs? Impotence. And guess what the statin drug manufacturer also makes? You guessed it: Viagra.

“We have an illusionary impression,” says Taite, “that if a drug is FDA approved that it is safe.” Chris explains that drug companies only need to submit two positive studies to the FDA that their drug is more effective than a placebo. They may have dozens of studies that show that the drug kills you or makes you grow horns but they don’t need to submit those. Many drug companies will tell a lab, “Run it till you have a study that works."

It’s a grim picture. Six thousand kids a day use prescription drugs to get high. Crack babies have been replaced by babies born addicted to prescription meds. “Every 19 minutes somebody dies of an accidental overdose,“ Taite says. And sure Big Pharma is paying settlements but they just see that as the cost of doing business.

Chris ponders whether the pharmaceutical companies themselves are also addicts: “profit addicts." The companies used to be led by scientists and doctors. Now they are headed by businessmen who want to line their pockets and keep their stockholders happy. Even more frightening is the amount of money that Big Pharma spends lobbying Congress. Turns out it’s $422,000…per Congressman. And now there is a new “fast track fee” where the pharmaceutical companies can pay the FDA to okay their drug in a shorter time. You know, like how you slip the bouncer a $20 to cut to the front of the line…

In light of all of this, Chris goes to visit with former California State Senator (now Congressman for California’s 33rd District) Ted Lieu. Despite Congressman Lieu’s awareness and concern for California’s growing opiate problem, he was shocked to be shown that you could actually buy Oxycontin on Craigslist. One month later, the Congressman held a press conference and sent a letter to Craigslist asking them to take down the ads selling opiates. So far they have refused.

At this point, Chris comes clean, literally. Turns out that the pills for his hip replacement surgery had led him to booze which had led him back to pills and he’d been using throughout the filming. The reason he knew they sold Oxys on Craigslist is because he had bought them for himself. Chris returns to Cliffside, not to interview Taite again, but to check in. “There’s so much I feel bad about,” Chris tells Taite. “I’m a liar. I was doing [drugs], while I was making the movie.”

Rather than lecturing Chris, Taite offers an explanation: “If you’re an addict, you don’t have a choice...You don’t have control over it, it’s got control over you.” It is a moving moment: Chris feels a palpable sense of relief, and wells up with tears.

Taite refers to addiction not as a disease but as a “behavioral disorder” in which you habituate your brain by doing the same thing over and over, eventually creating neural pathways. “Anytime you are out of balance with anything, in its most simplest level, it’s a behavior that you want to change, and you have to replace it with a behavior that’s more mindful and balanced. So you change the behavior that’s causing you wreckage, and you replace it with a behavior that serves you.”

The idea of being cognizant and taking control is echoed by Gwen who says that “consumer demand will keep the machine going” and that we all must be our own health advocates.

The screening was followed by a Q&A with Chris Bell, Mark Bell, Horshu, Richard Taite, editor/producer Greg Young and led by sober actor, Joe Manganiello.

Manganiello remarked that Prescription Thugs is the latest in a series of recent films and TV shows (The Big Short, Making of a Murderer, Sicario) that are looking at and challenging the establishment, be it the legal system, financial industry or pharmaceutical companies.

“In treatment centers," Taite explained, “you put opiate addicts on Suboxone. And they leave on it. Except mine.” He went on to explain that sure, two-tenths high on Suboxone is better than 100% high on full opiates but it’s certainly not as good as being sober “on the natch...It’s hard to strike people sober. Sometimes you have to start at a managed place. You can’t always fight against the current.“

“What was it like to lose your director halfway through the film?” Manganiello asked editor and producer Young.

“I knew his vision but yeah, when I got the phone call that Chris was going into rehab, I hid it from the top producers for awhile,” Young admitted.

Chris shrugged off the fact that he finished the movie while in aftercare. “It was fun!” he chirped.

“Hey man, you finished a movie in rehab! That’s not done every day,” Taite exclaimed.

It’s too early to know if there will be any blowback from Big Pharma as the film has only been shown publicly six times.

Near the end of the Q&A, Chris brought up his father, who I personally found to be one of the more interesting characters in the film. His father said, “My wife and I have always been big believers in the Lord. Our pastor said, ‘Love God, love people and make an impact.’ I don’t want to push the God thing but if you love people you will make an impact. Don’t be so ready to judge people and write them off.”

Chris is now 20 months sober.

“Seems like everybody who’s anybody is on something,” Chris’s dad added. “If it’s not your natural drive, if you’re being propped up, it’s just phony. Substance comes from within.” Couldn’t agree more. 

Prescription Thugs is an official selection of the 2015 Tribeca Film Festival and opens today in the following cities: Houston, New York, Atlanta, Boston, Dallas, Denver, Detroit, Miami, Philadelphia, Los Angeles, Lubbock, and San Diego. It will also be available on iTunes.

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