Drug firms call for poppyfield expansion to feed painkiller demand

Tasmania fights end of exclusivity for key element of local economy despite pressure from big pharma


in Sydney

Leading drugs makers have called on Australia to expand its opium poppy growing industry beyond the island of Tasmania amid fears that the world’s biggest supplier of raw narcotics for painkillers is facing a supply crunch due to a surge in global demand.

GlaxoSmithKline, Johnson & Johnson and TPI Enterprises of Australia are lobbying Canberra to let them grow opium poppies commercially on the Australian mainland for the first time. GSK has begun trials in the state of Victoria, which is expected to pass a law decriminalising the growing of poppies.

“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,” said Jarrod Ritchie, chief executive of TPI.

“We’ve recently suffered drought and storms and we just can’t get enough.”

Opium poppy plants contain morphine, codeine and thebaine, which are used in a wide range of common painkillers such as Solpadeine, 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 120 million Australian dollars (€77.7 million) a year. The island is responsible for about half of the world’s supply of opiate-based pain relief.

Figures released last week by the UN showed demand for pain relief more than tripled between 1993 and 2012 to the equivalent of 14 billion daily doses. Demand is expected to rise further as middle-class consumers, particularly in Asia, take more.

Poppy growing and processing is an important part of the economy of Tasmania, which has a population of about 500,00 people and the highest unemployment rate in Australia at 7.6 per cent. 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.

Canberra is sensitive to the concerns of growers ahead of a state election in Tasmania this Saturday but big pharma has warned that Australia risks losing its pre-eminent role in the global pain-relief supply chain unless it expands poppy growing to the mainland. – Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2014