Drug Industry CEOs Are Profiting off Our Opioid Epidemic

Prescription Drugs Money

(Photo: DedMityay / Shutterstock)

Travis Bornstein never told his friends about his son Tyler’s drug problem. He was too embarrassed.

Then, on September 28, 2014, Tyler’s body was found in a vacant lot in Akron, Ohio. The 23-year-old had become addicted to opioid pain killers after several sports-related injuries and surgeries. Unable to afford long-term treatment, he ultimately turned to a cheaper drug — the heroin that killed him.

“Now I have no choice but to speak out,” the elder Bornstein, president of Teamsters Local 24 in Akron, told a crowd of thousands at the union’s convention in July 2016. As he proceeded to share the unvarnished tale of how a middle class, star athlete had wound up in that vacant lot, Bornstein lit a fire under the 1.4-million-member organization.

Right there on the convention floor, rank-and-file Teamsters spontaneously began gathering donations for a nonprofit organization the Bornstein family has established, Breaking Barriers — Hope Is Alive, to expand drug treatment in Ohio. Eventually, the union and its members pledged $ 1.4 million.

Bornstein also inspired a Teamsters campaign to go after the drug industry CEOs who’ve been profiting off the country’s opioid epidemic. The three largest U.S. prescription drug wholesalers — McKesson, Cardinal Health, and AmerisourceBergen — have enjoyed strong sales as the country’s opioid problem has reached epidemic proportions.

According to the Centers for Disease Control, the number of overdose deaths involving opioids (including prescription drugs and heroin) has quadrupled since 1999. In 2015, opioid deaths in the United States hit a record-breaking 33,000.

On March 2, the Teamsters held a rally outside the annual shareholder meeting of one of these wholesalers, AmerisourceBergen, demanding that the company take responsibility for their role in the epidemic and conduct a full investigation of their distribution practices. According to a Charleston Gazette-Mail investigation based on U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration documents, AmerisourceBergen delivered 118 million opioid pills to West Virginia pharmacies over a six-year period (2008-2012). During that timeframe, 1,728 people in the state overdosed on the painkillers.

Altogether, drug wholesalers shipped 780 million hydrocodone and oxycodone opioid pills to West Virginia in just those six years — 433 for every man, woman and child in the state.

In January 2017, AmerisourceBergen paid $ 16 million to settle a case brought by West Virginia over their negligence. But the company’s CEO, Steven Collis, has not coughed up a penny of the tens of millions of dollars in compensation he pocketed as the firm was reaping opioid windfalls. The Teamsters are demanding that some of his pay be “clawed back,” in the same way that Wells Fargo executives involved in last year’s bogus account scandal had to forfeit some of their compensation.

“When it comes to the role of drug distributors fueling the nation’s opioid epidemic, West Virginia is the canary in the coal mine,” Ken Hall, international secretary-treasurer of the Teamsters union told the Charleston Gazette-Mail. “The [AmerisourceBergen] board cannot afford to let management sweep this issue under the carpet with ad-hoc settlements, but must rather undertake a thorough investigation of the company’s sales practices, compliance programs, and senior executives who dropped the ball.”

The Teamsters have made similar demands on McKesson, where CEO John Hammergren has taken in an astounding $ 368 million in compensation, including stock-based pay, over the past five years. In January 2017, McKesson settled a U.S. Department of Justice case over their drug distribution practices for $ 150 million. The firm also faces a case brought by West Virginia, accusing McKesson of “illegal and reckless and malicious action” in flooding the state with opioids.

Part of the problem with accountability at McKesson, according to the Teamsters, is the fact that Hammergren serves as both CEO and Chairman of the company. The union is filing a shareholder resolution this year urging the board to adopt a policy requiring the chair to be an independent director who has not previously served as a McKesson executive.

Thus far, all of the drug wholesalers have denied any wrongdoing, pointing the finger instead at corrupt doctors and pharmacists who sell pills to addicts and dealers. But as West Virginia Governor Earl Ray Tomblin told the Charleston Gazette-Mail, “Obviously, they had to know, with a state this size, and that many pills coming in, that something wasn’t right.”

Meanwhile, Travis Bornstein is continuing to speak out, telling his son Tyler’s tragic story to students, policymakers, and others as he works to expand the availability of drug treatment for communities ravaged by the opioid crisis.

Since Tyler’s death, he has learned that opioid addiction is not a moral failure, but rather a disease, like cancer or diabetes. “Now my son is my hero for everything he was able to accomplish with such a gut-wrenching disease,” Bornstein said. “I was the fool.”

Sarah Anderson directs the Global Economy Project at the Institute for Policy Studies.


Simple solutions to end CKDnT epidemic among sugarcane workers in Central America

Fairfood International is working together as part of its Occupational Health and Safety programme to address the fatal epidemic of Chronic Kidney Disease of non-traditional causes (CKDnT) among sugarcane workers in Latin America. The sugarcane industry in Central America is beset by poor working conditions, such as long working days and heavy physical work with little access to water and shade, which most likely contribute to the onset of the disease.

Simple solutions

However, four simple solutions could help prevent further deaths: access to clean drinking water, more breaks, more shade and better working equipment. Fairfood and CNV Interationaal are working to help companies implement these simple solutions. April 28 is World Day for Safety and Health at Work.

Watch our new ‘Simple solutions’ video to find out how easily this deadly epidemic could be solved. Find out more about our Sugarcane project in Central America and help take action with a small donation.

Interviews with La Isla Foundation co-founder Jason Glaser about the CKDnT epidemic

Read our interviews with Jason Glaser about his work battling CKDnT, the corporate and government abuses destroying lives and communities, and the need for global citizens to stand up and be counted.

Death and despots in Central America – interview with Jason Glaser, co-founder of La Isla Foundation

Blood in the tropics: the deadly toll of bananas and sugarcane from Latin America



Breakthrough in battle against fatal global epidemic affecting agricultural workers

The Costa Rican government have recently announced new regulations that will help protect workers from Chronic Kidney Disease of non-Traditional Causes (CKDnT). The regulations – the first CKDnT-specific labour protection proposed by a government in Central America – will seek to combat the epidemic by focusing on heat stress and dehydration, requiring all companies employing workers in tropical conditions to provide ample water, rest and shade.

The fatal rise of Chronic Kidney Disease in Central America

Fairfood has been working to expose the fatal rise of the CKDnT epidemic among sugarcane workers in Central America since January 2013, and published a report ‘Give them a break, the bitter consequences of poor working conditions in the Central American sugarcane industry’ in July 2015. The disease is characterised by an increasing failure of kidney functions, ultimately resulting in the death of the patient if left untreated. Three of the most likely causes of CKDnT are dehydration, heat stress and exposure to agrochemicals. A 2012 study published by the Boston University School of Public Health revealed that 20,000 workers in Central America have already died from this disease and signaled similar cases in Sri Lanka, India and Egypt.

Cooperation leads to Costa Rican breakthrough

Costa Rica’s new regulation, which was issued by presidential decree and made public on 25 July, is based on a multi-party consensus via the Council on Occupational Health (Consejo de Salud Ocupacional, CSO) and the Costa Rican Department of Social Insurance (Caja Costarricense de Seguro Social, CCSS).

A number of Fairfood’s partners played a role in bringing about these regulations. Olman Chinchilla from the Costa Rican trade union federation Central del Movimiento de Trabajadores (CMTC), which has received capacity training from Fairfood, gave advice to the Costa Rican government as a member of the CSO. But also SALTRA (a university-based programme on work and health) and La Isla Foundation (LIF) have been in talks with the Costa Rican Ministry of Labour and the CSO over the last year advocating the need for the government to address heat stress in their labour legislation.

In April 2015, Fairfood, together with CMTC, SALTRA and LIF, had several meetings with Costa Rican government institutions, such as the CSO and CCSS, represented by Dr Roy Wong, among others, a government epidemiologist who has led the official research for the government into CKDnT.

Building on Costa Rican victory to combat CKDnT worldwide

Fairfood hopes that other Central American governments and sugarcane mills (ingenios) will follow Costa Rica’s example in ending the deadly CKDnT epidemic. No further workers should have to die from a disease that is preventable. LIF is already making progress with an intervention programme in El Salvador, working together with El Angel Sugar Mill, an influential industry player. Lieneke Wieringa, Advocacy Manager at Fairfood, said, “This is a positive example of how governments can play a role in solving this pressing health issue. However, this is just a start and other governments and companies need to follow suit in implementing the solutions that are already out there.”

If you would like to know more about the CKDnT epidemic, visit our sugarcane project page, or you can make a donation to ensure Central American workers are protected from this disease.

Interview with La Isla Foundation co-founder Jason Glaser

For more in-depth information about CKDnT, the work of La Isla Foundation and the fight in Central America to protect worker’s rights, read our interview with La Isla Foundation co-founder Jason Glaser.


Boston University researcher confirms occupational causes of CKDnT epidemic

Last weekend at a regional forum for nephrology, Dr Daniel Brooks from Boston University explained the occupational factors influencing the risk of Chronic Kidney Disease of Non-traditional causes (CKDnT), highlighting that (among other factors) heat and dehydration are very likely to be major contributors. His statements are based on the study Boston University (BU) published earlier this year, in which occupational factors were identified to be among the risk factors of this deadly disease. Fairfood is pleased to hear Brooks publically confirming these findings once again as, up until the publication of the latest study, previous research by Boston University (led by Brooks) had denied that occupational factors were risk factors in any way.      

In the study, the BU researchers differentiated between various types of workers. The outcomes of the research for each of the worker groups confirmed the fact that one or more risk factors are occupational. As Brooks says: One or more risk factors (causes) are occupational. We are saying this because it is empirical evidence for the decrease in kidney function from which the workers are suffering during the harvesting season. Moreover, there are differences in the decrease between the different types of work, with the cutters being the most heavily affected.”

Brooks agreed with Doctor Pedro Orduñez from the Pan-American Health Organisation (PAHO), that CKDnT is a serious public health problem that has to be prioritised by the countries in which it prevails. It is directly related to poverty, agrochemicals and labour conditions.

Prevalence of CKD in Central America

CKD is causing many deaths in Central American sugar-producing nations. The PAHO has reported thousands of deaths caused by the disease. Between 2005 and 2009, the numbers reported were: 3,342 in Nicaragua, 874 in Costa Rica, 6,974 in El Salvador and 4,946 in Guatemala. Evidence suggests that these numbers have increased even further in recent years. These numbers include both CKD and CKDnT cases, however, since the traditional form of kidney disease – CKD – is a lifestyle disease mostly linked to obesity and diabetes, one can assume most of the reported cases are CKDnT-related.

As part of our Occupational Safety and Health programme, Fairfood is working to prevent further cases of CKDnT by ensuring companies implement labour standards that, among other things, inhibit heat stress and dehydration as the most important occupational risk factors influencing the disease.

This article is based on a report by Nicaraguan website Confidencial. For the full article (in Spanish), click here.


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