Big pharma has warned Australia to expand its poppy growing industry beyond the remote island of Tasmania amid fears the world’s biggest supplier of narcotic raw ingredients for pain killers faces a supply crunch as global demand surges.
GlaxoSmithKline, Johnson & Johnson and TPI Enterprises of Australia are lobbying Canberra to be allowed grow opium poppies commercially on the Australian mainland for the first time. GSK has already begun trials in the state of Victoria, which is expected to pass a law decriminalising the growing of poppies in coming weeks.
“There is increasing demand for pain relief drugs as the global middle classes expand. But there is a limit on the available land in Tasmania for growing,” said Jarrod Ritchie, chief executive of TPI.
“We’ve recently suffered drought and storms in Tasmania and we just can’t get enough crops. The existing monopoly situation is damaging the industry,” he said.
Opium poppy plants contain morphine, codeine and the baine, ingredients in a wide range of common pain killers such as solpadine, as well as in illegal drugs such as heroin. Growing opium poppies is regulated by the UN, which has approved Australia as one of only a handful of countries for legal commercial production.
For half a century the Australian government has handed this licence to Tasmania, creating a monopoly for farmers worth A$120m a year and processed into A$5.5bn for the drugs industry. The island supplies about half of the world’s supply of opiate-based pain relief, raising fears any disruption to supply could have global implications.
Figures released last week by the UN showed demand for pain relief more than tripled between 1993 and 2012 to the equivalent of 14bn daily doses. Demand is expected to rise further as middle class consumers, particularly in Asia, consume more pain relief medicines.
Poppy growing and processing is an important part of the economy of Tasmania, which has a population of around half a million people, and the highest unemployment rate in Australia at 7.6 per cent and few big private sector employers.
Tasmanian farmers are lobbying furiously against big pharma’s call for commercial growing to be extended to other states, warning it could decimate their livelihoods and create law and order difficulties due to the sensitive nature of the narcotic crop.
“Poppies are not just pretty flowers, they are potentially dangerous plants. People have died in recent years after ingesting material,” said Glenn Williams, president of Poppy Growers Tasmania.
“Tasmania is a good place to grow poppies because it has the right climate and is isolated from big population centres,” he said.
Canberra is sensitive to the concerns of growers ahead of a state election in Tasmania this Saturday. But the federal government faces pressure from Victoria and the Northern Territory, which want to introduce poppy growing.
Big pharma has warned Canberra it risks losing its pre-eminent role in the global pain relief supply chain unless it expands poppy growing to the mainland to provide better security of supply.
In a submission to a parliamentary inquiry held in Tasmania last year GSK warned Tasmania’s 49 per cent market share is threatened by “uncontrollable forces such as climatic events”.
By Jamie Smyth in Sydney
March 11, 2014 1:26 am
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