Image for Letter to the Editor on POKIES

First published December 17

Dear editor,

In the lead up to the State election Tasmanian people will decide whether or not to vote for a party which, if returned to government, would entrench poker machines in clubs and pubs around Tasmania.

There is a rare opportunity to remove poker machines from these venues. It seems likely that poker machine policy may be a vote changing issue for this election. As a great deal rides on the decision of the electorate there will be furious claim and heated counter claim. It is likely that there will be more heat than light. It could be helpful to consider the tactics used by any industry that wishes to justify its business model and protect profits.

My position in this that I am strongly opposed to any activity that makes money from people who have been made vulnerable as a result of addiction. The poker machine industry strategy has been to deliberately cultivate addiction for monetary gain. I will attempt a ‘compare and contrast’ between the poker machine industry and another industry which has led to health and social chaos, especially in the United States, but also Australia: the legal opioid pain killer pharmaceutical business.

The opioid crisis has been estimated to have resulted in the premature deaths of two hundred thousand Americans since 1999. It is still leading to the deaths of one hundred and forty five deaths per day. The history of the opioid crisis is detailed in an article by Patrick Radden Keefe in The New Yorker on 30th October this year. The title is: Empire of Pain.

Purdue Pharma, owned by the Sackler family, developed the prescription pain killer, OxyContin. The drug was released it to help patients suffering moderate to severe pain in 1995. OxyContin became a best seller and generated billions in revenue. In order to get doctors to prescribe OxyContin for non cancer/non post-surgical pain it was necessary to convince the medical profession that this was good medicine.

A wildly successful, multi-faceted campaign which misinformed the medical community about the risks was launched.

The Federal Drug Administration (FDA) approved a package insert for OxyContin which claimed that the drug was safer than rival painkillers because the delayed absorption mechanism was thought to reduce abuse liability. Purdue Pharma had conducted no clinical trials on the addiction potential of their drug.

The company employed hundreds of sales representatives trained to promote this message of low addictive potential. The marketing of OxyContin relied on convincing doctors of the drug’s safety with literature produced by other doctors who had been paid by the company. Almost immediately after OxyContin’s release there was evidence of it being abused. Purdue did not withdraw their drug or acknowledge that it was addictive. A vigorous campaign was launched to defend OxyContin. Newspapers were warned to be careful of their coverage.

In 2003 the Drug Enforcement Agency had found that Purdue Pharma’s “aggressive methods” had exacerbated the widespread abuse of OxyContin. It was concluded that Purdue had “deliberately minimised the risks”. In the same year the FDA sent Purdue a warning letter that their advertisements ”grossly over-stated the safety profile of OxyContin”. Purdue attempted shift blame to drug abusers (“our product isn’t dangerous-people are dangerous”). Many people, who took the drug exactly as instructed by medical professionals, became addicted. The danger associated with OxyContin is clearly intrinsic to the drug itself.

What comparisons can be made between Purdue and other companies which sell addictive products and services? Mike Moore was a Mississippi Attorney General and played a key role in litigation against the tobacco industry. Moore now works with other attorney’s bringing a wave of lawsuits against Purdue Pharma. Regarding any legal distinction between a tobacco company and opioid producers, Moore was blunt: “they’re both profiting by killing people”. 

Purdue Pharma and the Sackler family have continued to fight aggressively against any limitations to sales of OxyContin. Patrick Radden Keefe identifies the behaviour as “calling to mind the gun lobby’s resistance to fire-arm regulation”. Between 2006 and 2015, Purdue and other painkiller producers spent nearly nine hundred million dollars lobbying and making political contributions- eight times more than the gun lobby spent during the same period.

The Sackler family has attempted to distance themselves from the method by which they have gained most of their wealth. At the same time they have cultivated reputations as extremely generous philanthropists giving vast amounts of money to arts institutions and medical facilities and programs. They have given no money to addiction rehabilitation services. It is estimated that two and a half Americans have an opioid-use disorder.

Federal Group have used poker machine technologies, which they know to be addictive, to amass a fortune . They have shown little regard for the personal and social damage caused by their machines. They have perverted the Tasmanian democracy by cultivating stunning political compliance to their agenda rather than the needs of Tasmanian people. Federal Group have consistently overplayed the benefits to Tasmanian employment and Treasury finances. Federal Group’s power to control Tasmanian politics for their benefit has been challenged by Rebecca White and the Labor Party. She and they deserve any support that can be offered as the business bully playbook will be thrown at them.

Frank Nicklason

North Hobart

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