US

Drug Makers Floods Patient Groups With Cash To Push Opioid Painkillers

A senate report investigating the causes of the national opioid epidemic shows patient advocacy groups have received millions from opioid drug makers since 2012.

Democratic Sen. Claire McCaskill of Missouri released the report Monday, which reveals five of the largest opioid manufacturers in the country worked closely with patient groups to promote opioid painkillers for people suffering from chronic pain. Between 2012 and 2017 these patient groups, including the U.S. Pain Foundation and the Academy of Integrative Pain Management, received more than $10 million from the pharmaceutical industry, reports NPR.

McCaskill suggests the relationship between drug makers and these groups significantly contributed to a culture of overprescribing in the medical community. The report states, “These financial relationships – and the lack of transparency surrounding them – have raised concerns regarding the information and initiatives patient advocacy organizations promote.”

“The pharmaceutical industry spent a generation downplaying the risks of opioid addiction and trying to expand their customer base for these incredibly dangerous medications, and this report makes clear they made investments in third-party organizations that could further those goals,” McCaskill said in a statement, according to NPR. “These financial relationships were insidious, lacked transparency and are one of many factors that have resulted in arguably the most deadly drug epidemic in American history.”

Many of the patient groups in questions have since reformed their practices and are adamant that funding from drug makers, including Purdue Pharma and Janssen Pharmaceuticals, never influenced their advice to patients regarding the risks of opioid painkillers. A representative for the Academy of Integrative Pain Management told NPR that as a response to the opioid crisis they have turned their focus to alternative pain treatments like physical therapy and acupuncture. (RELATED: Opioid Lawsuits Target Alleged Root Cause Of The Addiction Epidemic)

Officials with the U.S. Pain Foundation say funding from pharmaceutical companies is used for ensuring smooth access to painkillers for patients with cancer.

“It looks pretty damning when these groups were pushing the message about how wonderful opioids are and they were being heavily funded, in the millions of dollars, by the manufacturers of those drugs,” Lewis Nelson, a Rutgers University doctor, told The Center for Public Integrity.

Purdue Pharma was the largest contributor to patient advocacy groups, contributing $4.7 million since 2012.

Purdue Pharma revealed in an announcement Friday that it had cut more than half of their sales force, alerting staff to the changes in a letter last week. The move reduces the sales staff to 200 employees and effectively ends the long-held marketing practice of promoting painkillers to health care professionals.

Purdue Pharma’s medical affairs team will now field any questions regarding pain medications from doctors. Purdue Pharma is the first major opioid drug maker to end the practice of marketing painkillers to medical professionals.

The unexpected shift in policy from Purdue Pharma is likely a concession to the demands of dozens of states and localities suing the drug maker, along with other manufacturers of opioid painkillers, for igniting the addiction crisis through deceptive marketing practices that downplayed the risks of their drugs.

Purdue Pharma denies allegations of complicity in the opioid epidemic and says it is committed to curbing rates of opioid abuse.

Addiction experts are welcoming the decision, but note it is only a small step towards reducing overall opioid abuse and addiction. Much of the current damage being done by the opioid epidemic is due to street drugs like heroin and fentanyl, which users have turned to in the absence of the prescription painkillers that first made them dependent on opioids.

Fentanyl overtook heroin as the deadliest substance in the U.S. in 2016, claiming 19,413 lives in 2017, according to data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

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Nationally, drug overdoses are now the leading cause of accidental death for Americans under age 50, killing more than 64,000 people in 2016. Opioid overdoses made up a staggering 66 percent of all drug overdose deaths in 2016, surpassing the annual number of lives lost to breast cancer.

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