Aggressive marketing of fentanyl in New Jersey fuels surge in opioid overdose deaths

by Michael Heygood

A new study reveals that marketing campaigns by drug companies designed to get doctors in New Jersey to prescribe the fentanyl pain patch has led to an alarming rise in prescriptions in the state. The study found that many doctors are prescribing fentanyl to patients who are not eligible to take the drug under FDA regulations, placing them at risk of a fatal overdose.

The study, conducted by the group NJ Advance Media, found that between 2013 and 2015, doctors in New Jersey were paid $1.67 million by drug companies that manufacture fentanyl products. These payments often came in the form of paid dinners designed to induce the doctors to prescribe fentanyl more often to their patients.

Although fentanyl is only intended to be prescribed to opioid-tolerant patients with severe pain, such as cancer patients, the campaign sought to convince doctors to prescribe the powerful opioid painkiller to patients with less severe pain. Because of the high potency of fentanyl – about 80-100 times more powerful than morphine – prescribing fentanyl to patients who have not developed opioid tolerance carries a serious risk of a deadly overdose.

The NJ Advance Media study found that this marketing campaign caused the number of fentanyl prescriptions in the state of New Jersey to skyrocket. Since 2011, enough fentanyl had been prescribed in the state to allow every patient who had died from cancer during that time to fill a fentanyl prescription eight times.

The study also revealed that fentanyl overdose deaths have surged in New Jersey since the aggressive marketing campaign for the drug went into effect. Between 2013 and 2015, the number of deaths due to a fentanyl overdose rose from 42 deaths in 2013 to 417 in 2015.

The NJ Advance Media study also found that several doctors in the state of New Jersey were disciplined by the state medical board for improperly prescribing fentanyl to their patients. In several cases, doctors whose patients died from a fentanyl overdose lost their medical licenses. As of late 2016, the New Jersey state medical board was examining the prescribing history of at least a dozen doctors in the state to determine whether they had inappropriately prescribed fentanyl to their patients. At least one other doctor faced a wrongful death lawsuit after a patient died while taking fentanyl.

Despite these efforts to reduce the number of fentanyl prescriptions written in New Jersey, doctors in the state have continued prescribing fentanyl at high volume. Fentanyl prescriptions were dispensed by New Jersey pharmacies 142,000 times in 2015 and 127,000 times in 2016.

Aggressive Opioid Marketing Campaigns by Drug Industry

Due in part to the aggressive marketing of fentanyl by drug companies, many of the doctors who prescribed fentanyl to their patients were pain management specialists. According to the study, pain specialists prescribed fentanyl 60% more often than oncologists, even though many of their patients are not eligible to take fentanyl under FDA guidelines.

One of the companies that marketed fentanyl products to doctors in New Jersey was Insys, the manufacturer of the fentanyl spray Subsys. Insys has faced numerous lawsuits across the country for aggressively marketing Subsys to doctors and for encouraging these doctors to prescribe the drug to patients for whom it should not have been prescribed.

In some cases, Subsys allegedly paid doctors $1,000 or more for “speaking engagements.” Many of these events took place at expensive restaurants and were attended by the doctors’ family and friends, none of whom was eligible to prescribe Subsys to patients. As a result of this marketing campaign, the number of Subsys prescriptions written in the state of New Jersey rose from 400 in 2012 to about 3,000 in 2014. Several former Insys employees have faced criminal charges over the company’s Subsys marketing campaign. Federal prosecutors have alleged that Insys employees explicitly instructed doctors to prescribe Subsys in exchange for cash, a clear violation of federal law.

The aggressive marketing of Subsys in New Jersey and other states is part of a broader effort by the drug industry to market opioid painkillers to doctors. This aggressive marketing has help fuel an opioid epidemic in the U.S. which has claimed the lives of tens of thousands of patients every year. Another opioid manufacturer, Purdue Pharma, has been forced to pay millions in fines as a result of an illegal campaign to market the powerful opioid painkiller OxyContin (also known as oxycodone) to doctors.

Loved One the Victim of a Fatal Opioid Overdose? You Have Rights.

The aggressive promotion of opioid medications by the pharmaceutical industry has also played a role in the U.S. opioid epidemic. Physician training programs and other campaigns created by the opioid industry have helped to “educate” doctors to prescribe these drugs, helping to fuel the increased use of opioid medications for moderate pain conditions.

If your loved one has been a victim of a fatal overdose caused by fentanyl or other prescription painkillers, you may be eligible to file a lawsuit against the manufacturer of the drug or the doctor or medical care center that prescribed the medication. The first step in taking legal action is to speak with an attorney who has the experience in filing opioid lawsuits to advise you regarding your legal rights and guide you through the process of filing a case.

The lawyers at Heygood, Orr & Pearson have filed more cases involving the opioid fentanyl than all other law firms in the U.S. combined. Our attorneys are committed to helping patients and their families who have been harmed by prescription painkillers or the indiscriminate opioid prescribing practices of many doctors. At Heygood, Orr & Pearson, we believe that when consumers are injured by dangerous drugs or other products, they should have the right to know that their legal interests will be fully protected by an in a court of law.

For more information about lawsuits involving fentanyl or other opioid painkillers and to find out if you qualify to file a case, contact the lawyers at Heygood, Orr & Pearson for a free legal consultation. You can reach us by calling toll-free at 1-877-446-9001, or by following the link to our free case evaluation form and answering a few brief questions about your case to get started.

by Michael Heygood

Michael Heygood is a licensed attorney and partner at HO&P who focuses on insurance and corporate litigation, and other civil arenas. Michael has been named multiple times to the Super Lawyers List.