Battle of the Social Movements

The Milwaukee Journal Sentinel reports today that the University of Wisconsin’s Pain and Policy Studies Group will no longer accept research funding from Purdue Pharma, manufacturers of Oxycontin.

Oxy = Death

The research group has been under pressure since the Journal’s revelations about this funding stream came to light early in April, prompting a concerned citizens’ letter-writing campaign to UW Chancellor Biddy Martin.  Excerpts from that campaign in the MSJ’s coverage of the story suggest that the energy behind it is similar to that which drove the 19th- and 20th-century female temperance movements that Points Contributing Editor Michelle McClellan blogged about earlier this week.  “Chancellor Martin,” wrote one woman whose son had died of an opioid overdose, “I ask you to look into your heart and soul and help stop the epidemic of death and addiction caused by prescribed opioids.”

What makes this story interesting is its difference from the alcohol temperance campaigns, where dignified, sorrowful, and righteously indignant mothers face off against loutish and

No Sympathy for the (Old) Devil

wholly unsympathetic “liquor interests.”  In the opioids story, by contrast. the pharmaceutical industry and its supporters (late capitalism, insurance companies, the federal government, the bloated and profit-driven healthcare system) are weirdly absent from the narrative.  The bogey-man of the rogue doctor with a prescription pad for hire appears occasionally, but the real force that the prohibition and control advocates are pitted against is the pain management movement, which at one time at least, had roots of grass.  That pressure group is represented in the MSJ story by Physicians for Responsible Opioid Prescribing; its been present on this blog in the writings of Siobhan Reynolds, and is probably most formally organized in the American Pain Society.  The presence of these actors in the story — like the comments that have been posted in response to the MSJ’s coverage (an amazing compendium of citizen skepticism about the pharmaceutical industry, the university system, physicians for hire, and “big government” [they even managed to work public school teachers in there somehow, but hey, it’s Wisconsin!])– suggest that populism of various strains is alive and well in America’s heartland.

Nobody likes a Foucaltian fairy tale about how Big Pharma creates addicts just so the DEA has an excuse to increase police powers better than I do, but I think the bizarre and contradictory tendencies of populist social movements are actually the prime movers in this story– or at least important energizing forces.  They are certainly a large part of what is making it interesting and weird.  Doctors and patients demand drugs that give effective relief from pain; the victims of addiction demand redress of the grievances caused by the diversion and abuse of those drugs.  I said it last week in relationship to Russian alcohol taxes and I’ll say it again here: what’s a poor state to do?  [Ed. note: Some credit for this post is due to Hayden Griffin, at whose spirited dissertation defense these issues were recently discussed.]

1 thought on “Battle of the Social Movements”

  1. Points readers may be interested in the following news item, which we tweeted on Sunday and is pretty relevant to both this and Michelle McClellan’s post, “MADD as Hell: From Carrie Nation to Drunk Driving.”

    The Fix reports that bar owner and Montana state Rep. Alan Hale, in railing against a bill that included a proposal to count older DUI offenses against defendants in sentencing, characterized all DUI laws as bad for business and detrimental to Montanans’ way of life. He concluded that “taverns and bars in the smaller communities connect people together, they’re the center of the communities. And I’ll guarantee you, there’s only two ways to get there—either you hitchhike, or you drive. I promise you that they’re not gonna hitchhike.”

    Where does Rep. Hale’s defense of drunk driving and opposition to laws that criminalize it fall along the spectrum of views about drunkenness that we’ve highlighted in the aforementioned (and other) posts? Is this another (semi-)social movement in which we should be interested? Is it at all productive in terms of public health or even just plain old fashioned fun, or is it just a self-serving defense of “buzzed driving” from someone who has a vested interest in its legality?

    And, perhaps most interesting, why doesn’t Rep. Hale count cab drivers among the small businesspeople he says these laws hurt?

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