Gaslighting the Public

To Push a Political Agenda

It’s troubling to think that our thought leaders and government officials could intentionally mislead the public. But I was reminded this week after watching “The Post,” a film about the massive coverup that spanned three decades of secrets and lies about the Vietnam conflict, that our government has indeed intentionally deceived and lied to the American public.

Burying information is one way to further a political agenda. Limiting acceptable words and, as the National Review points out, choosing language specifically to distort the truth is another. You might be far more willing to ingest a meat additive, for example, if detractors hadn’t labeled it as “pink slime.”

The Opioid Crisis Is the Latest Example

Because covertly pushing a political agenda has happened before, we should not be surprised it is happening again. This time, it’s regarding the public health crisis that this presidential administration has mistakenly, and with prejudice, categorized as an opioid crisis.

In fact, we have a multi-faceted national public health crisis that involves drug-related overdose deaths, substance abuse, and undertreated pain. Conflating these issues may help further the agenda of those who are opposed to prescribing opioids on moral, economic, or political grounds.

However, if the goal is to develop policies that will ameliorate the intertwined drug and pain crises, then a bias — whatever the motivation — is counterproductive. In order to solve a problem as complex as the one we face, we must clearly define our terms and appropriately report the data.

For example, when the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) reports drug overdoses, it combines those due to prescription drugs and illicit drugs, as well as drugs that were taken by people for whom they were not prescribed.

A heroin-related death will be reported as an opioid death. While it’s true that heroin is an opioid, it is never prescribed in America by providers. Therefore, to reference heroin-related deaths as part of a campaign to mandate less prescribing of opioids is not only misleading. It’s actually “gaslighting” the public.

The CDC is not alone in its campaign to repeat partial data, conflated facts, or out-of-context statistics until members of the public begin to accept them as fact. The Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA), health insurance companies, media outlets, and others are complicit.

Even well-meaning, yet uninformed, people who have lost family members due to the misuse of substances have become part of an anti-opioid movement that seeks to scapegoat prescription opioids and discount the needs of those with chronic, intractable pain who require prescription opioids to have some semblance of a normal life.

Because the opioid crisis has rarely been out of the headlines in the past few years, as overdose deaths have skyrocketed, it is easy to believe the narrative that prescription drugs have created the problem of addiction.

Falsehoods Can Be Persuasive

Society has demonized prescription opioids and painted them as the primary cause of the increase in overdoses. Instead of hearing the facts, we receive misinformation that feeds the fear of opioids, people with addiction, and violence.

However, the gateway theory, or the concept that prescription drugs usually lead to addiction, has been largely discredited. Biology and environmental factors play a far greater role than exposure to prescription drugs in determining whether someone is likely to become addicted to drugs.

As I’ve said in a blog, there’s a faction of people who believe that, if we make it difficult for doctors to prescribe opioids, then the crisis will go away. However, they are missing critical information. They don’t realize that opioids are a necessary part of pain management for some people. There are patients who will die in agony unless they can use opioid medication to manage their pain.

There is no doubt that prescription opioids can lead to addiction and death. But there is a subset of people who cannot tolerate life without opioids, because there isn’t anything else available or affordable for them today.

Many of those in pain live with the stigma of needing medication that the anti-opioid thought leaders have villianized. And many of those who marginalize pain patients don’t realize that their emotions are being manipulated by partial truths and outright falsehoods.

These falsehoods can be persuasive when their sources are trusted members of government, healthcare, academia, and media. That creates a problem with grave potential consequences. For people in pain who can no longer get access to the medication they need, and who may choose suicide over living with excruciating, unrelieved pain, gaslighting can be fatal.


Photo by Philippe Mignot on Unsplash


  1. Wendy on January 8, 2018 at 7:35 pm

    Thanks for the article. It is becoming more and more difficult for pain patients to be treated fairly and the misleading reports and the hype is being digested by neighbors and friends to further the stigma.

  2. deboruth on January 17, 2018 at 2:11 pm

    It was interesting that Tom Frieden showed no interest in opioid problems — or much of any other US health problem — in the first six years of his tenancy as head of CDC. He could have been teaching American children exercises to avoid growing up with back pain. But why work when you can cruise?
    Then, with Pres. Obama’s second term nearing its end, Frieden set up his secret commission with secret members to blast pain treatment out of existence and make his friend and former number 2 in New York City Dept. of Health, Dr. Kolodny, very very famous.
    The CDC pronouncements are a joke, basically scaring docs into pushing all pain patients down to 50 mg morphine equivalent a day, which should push all seriously injured into suicide or black market. But what does that matter compared to assuring careers prospects for Frieden and Kolodny? FYI the ideas like no smoking that made Frieden look good in NY should be credited to Bloomberg.

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