A New Opium War?

April 21, 2018


To say China has a complicated relationship with opiates would be an understatement.


When the British strong armed China to allow imports of opium from India in the 19th century, a wave of devastating addiction crippled the nation. This lasted until 1949, when Mao and the Communist Party eliminated drug use nationwide. Its far-reaching stigma, however, is still front-and-center in the medical profession, where concerns around addiction prevail.


Xi Jinping’s Government is trying to change this negative impression of opioids. The goal is to convince people that proper pain management, through the use of this class of drugs, is possible.


Why the change of heart? Cancer.


Cancer rates are rising in China by 3.5% annually. The Financial Times reports a doubling of new cases between 2000 and 2015. To deal with the 4.3 million new cases a year, as well as late-stage cancer issues, chronic pain management became a critical area of concern. A primary avenue of addressing chronic pain is through the use of painkillers like opioids.



The automatic fear in the minds of many is that China will experience the same trauma currently overtaking the United States. This “opioid crisis” claimed the lives of 21,000 people in 2016 alone, and is a major national health concern. With a largely dysfunctional, localized medical system - not dissimilar to the United States - will China face the same fate?


Answering this question lies in the hands of domestic and foreign pharmaceutical companies. The space is changing rapidly, with new measures recently passed to allow innovation among domestic players. There has even been a decoupling of hospitals from pharmaceutical providers, creating a potential white space for international groups to play. With a future amounting to a black box, it is the corporate responsibility of these companies to ensure appropriate opioid use among doctors and patients.


One example to learn from is Mundipharma, the China distributor of the popular drug OxyContin. While the drug is the poster child for the opioid crisis in the U.S., in China the company is working to ensure responsible use of its product. Their large-scale “Good Pain Management” campaign, started in 2011 in collaboration with the central Government, uses simple educational videos to get this message across. Although it experienced a few growing pains, the campaign did reach 6,000 hospitals and approximately 64,000 individuals.



As China’s pharmaceutical market shifts and evolves there is no need for a second Opium War to emerge. China can avoid this through responsible corporate citizenship, public-private partnerships, and collaboration between all players in the sector.



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