Prescription Thugs, a new documentary from director Chris Bell, aims to tackle the source of one of our nation’s fastest growing addictions—prescription medications. Covering every aspect of this complicated issue, from personal anecdotes from friends and celebrities to the corruption of the pharmaceutical industry and a broken legislature, Prescription Thugs is a highly relevant exposé on one of the most institutionalized and widely accepted addictions in the world.
Prescription Drugs Today
Prescription medications are increasingly becoming just another part of American life. Whether it’s cholesterol medicine to ensure a healthy heart, a tablet once a day to stave off hair loss, a synthetic medication to help you get to sleep at night, or a little blue pill to combat impotence, prescription drug use is becoming increasingly common, no matter the ailment. In fact, the Center for Disease Control estimates that almost half of the population has used a prescription drug in the past 30 days. What’s more, one out of every ten Americans is using five or more prescriptions regularly. What’s even more frightening about these numbers is that they’re actually growing. The Chicago Tribune, for example, reported that prescription drug spending rose by 8.5% in 2015. Healthcare based data firm QuintileIMS predicted that by the year 2020, America’s spending on prescription drugs will reach $370 to $400 billion. While these numbers are pretty enormous, why is it necessarily a bad thing? That’s where Chris Bell’s Prescription Thugs comes in. Through interviews with industry experts, government officials, and victims of prescription medication substance abuse, Chris tackles the question “What’s wrong with the prescription drug industry?”
Chris Bell was launched into a successful film industry after his 2008 documentary Bigger, Stronger, Faster. The film focused on the surprisingly prevalent use of anabolic steroids in both professional and amateur sports, from baseball and football to wrestling and bodybuilding. His follow-up documentary Prescription Thugs takes the same documentarian approach to a similarly widespread drug problem, the prescription drug industry. It begins with the story of Chris’s brother Mike. A larger-than-life man whose outlook on life could be summed up with his quote, “I’d rather be dead than be average,” Mike had been chasing his dream of wrestling fame for most of his life. And while he was shown on television an impressive 250 times, he always played the role of a “jobber”, a punching bag paid to take a dive against the more famous names in the wrestling industry. Mike had been struggling with a painkiller addiction after an injury on the job. As a result, he was in and out of rehab centers, causing friends and family to seriously worry about his safety and even his survival. Unfortunately, Mike eventually fully succumbs to the dangers of pain med addiction and dies from an accidental overdose. The combination of the loss of his older brother is one of the main reasons Chris decided to make the film.
Addicts and the Doctors That Create Them
One of the ways Chris adds a bit of the human element to this problem is by personally interviewing a variety of people that are directly affected by prescription medication addiction, including the addicts themselves. Some of the most notable people include NFL offensive tackle Jeff Hatch and all-time leader in UFC middleweight fights Chris Leben. The interviews with these two big names in the sports world show how sports injuries are turning athletes into addicts more easily and more often than you think. In his interview with pro-wrestler Horshu, we see the full extent of what a life driven by prescription medication (five Vicodins, three Somas, and a handful of impotence pills) looks like and how it eventually led to a stroke. But it’s not just the big names in sports that are affected. Chris also interviews a young man named Coly Lamb who developed an opiate addiction at the age of 15 for a broken bone. A mid-forties father named Dusty Ray is another unlikely victim of pain pill addiction. The story of these individuals sheds light on how even the most careful of prescription drug users can unwittingly become ensnared in a life of addiction. In fact, recent studies have shown that over one quarter of non-cancer patients prescribed opioids for pain tend to develop a physical dependence, one of the first steps towards full-blown addiction. The problem, Chris finds, is in over-prescribing doctors. As Richard Taite of Cliffside Malibu drug rehabilitation center points out, many of these doctors (who he describes as “addictionologists”) will often simply write prescriptions in exchange for cash. That way, the abuser’s prescription itself is legal even though it was obtained through illegal means. Another concerning issue is the fact that many doctors are convinced to over-prescribe certain drugs in exchange for kickbacks. A study from ProPublica shows that there is a strong correlation with which products a physician will prescribe and which companies have given him or her payments in the form of compensation for promotional speaking, consulting, gifts, and royalties. Pharmaceutical companies with deeper pockets, then, tend to have more sway over the doctors prescribing their products.
Legislature and Big Pharma
Chris goes on to examine the relationship between legal policy and pharmaceutical companies as well. In addition to pointing out the staggering amount of money in the pharmaceutical industry (expected to reach $1.12 trillion globally in 2022), the documentary also goes into how the direct to consumer (DTC) advertising ban was lifted by Reagan and further loosened by Clinton. In fact, this type of advertising is outlawed by every country except for the United States and New Zealand. Beyond policies such as these, the FDA is not as effective at regulating which drugs are safe as we think it is. Besides a newly added “fast track fee” that’ll entice the FDA to approve your drug in significantly less time is the fact that the FDA approval process for pharmaceutical companies is alarmingly lax. All you need, Chris says, are two studies that show your drug is more effective than placebo. And if a company is sitting on numerous studies that show the hazardous health effects of their products, all they have to do is not submit them to the FDA. Simple. Lobbying is another point of concern when it comes to the control Big Pharma has on our legislative process. Chris points out that around $422,000 is given to each congressman through lobbying. Beyond that, political watchdog Open Secrets reports that in 2016 alone, more than $244 million was spent lobbying by the pharmaceutical industry. Part of the reason for these alarming statistics is the fact that the leaders of pharmaceutical companies are shifting away from scientists and doctors and towards money-savvy businessmen who only ever eye the bottom line. While a lot can be said about keeping your company financially viable, trading that for the health of your customers is a twisted philosophy that’s making this country sick.
The True Goal of Prescription Meds
Keeping in line with this portrayal of the pharmaceutical industry, Chris’s interview with Gwen Olsen, author of Confessions of an Rx Drug Pusher and former representative for a pharmaceutical company, paints a picture of prescription meds that many people might not have considered. “There is a misconception that the pharmaceutical industry is about health and healing,” Olsen says. “It’s not. It’s about disease management and symptom maintenance.” Rather than having the actual health of their clients in mind, Olsen believes that many companies are out to create lifelong customers by focusing on managing their symptoms rather than the true cause of their problems. This type of “symptom management” can be found in addiction treatment as well. Products like Suboxone are often prescribed as part of a long-term maintenance plan for opioid addiction. The problem here is that Suboxone is actually an addictive opioid itself. What’s more, these plans can last for a few months all the way up to several years, essentially leading to trading one addiction for another. Rather than treating the true cause of addiction, such plans just worry about staving off withdrawal symptoms. That’s why it’s important to know what goes into a successful addiction treatment plan instead of just a maintenance one.
In a surprise twist, Chris reveals that he has actually been abusing prescription medications throughout the filming of this documentary. A hip replacement surgery had sent him through a downward spiral of addiction that led from pills to booze to pills again. Chris then returns to Richard Taite’s clinic to check himself into rehab and, despite feeling an immense amount of guilt, is welcomed into the clinic with open arms. Taite explains that addiction isn’t a choice. It’s a complex behavioral disorder that is reinforced by forces outside of our control. The chemical intensity of these substances commands us to use again and again with cravings unlike anything else in this world. The film closes with a few wise words from Gwen Olsen. She says that “consumer demand will keep the machine going.” As such, we need to start becoming our own health advocates, educating ourselves on the true effects of our medications as well as their dangers. And the best way to do that is by asking questions, doing your research, and taking most things you hear from the pharmaceutical industry with a grain of salt.
Prescription Thugs, is a piercing look into an industry fraught with corruption and abuse that’s built on the sickness and heartbreak caused by prescription medication addiction. It delivers an empowering message that our health is in our own hands. And with a bit of education and investigation, we’ll be better equipped to make the right decisions when it comes to prescription medication use.