Science for Sale? US Senate Committee Investigating Prescription Pain Pill Industry

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by Jim Orr

“It is clear that the United States is suffering from an epidemic of accidental deaths and addiction resulting from the increased sale and use of powerful narcotic painkillers” and “[t]here is growing evidence pharmaceutical companies that manufacture and market opioids may be responsible, at least in part, for this epidemic by promoting misleading information about the drugs’ safety and effectiveness,” write Senate Finance Committee Chairman Max Baucus (D-Mont.) and senior Committee member Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa) in a series of letters sent to several drug manufacturers and medical groups.

The Senators have initiated an investigation into the connections of drug manufacturers Purdue Pharma, Endo Pharmaceuticals and Johnson & Johnson with medical groups and physicians who have advocated the increased use of narcotic painkillers, or opioids.  The Senators also asked seven other medical groups to produce information about their financial ties and collaborations with opioid manufacturers.  In letters sent last week, Baucus and Grassley requested documents and financial information from the companies and noted that deaths resulting from opioid overdoses have recently skyrocketed, growing nearly 400 percent between 1999 and 2008, the most recent year data was available.  They also highlighted news reports suggesting the increase may be driven by misinformation and dubious marketing practices used by the pharmaceutical companies and the medical organizations they fund.

In 2007, top executives from Purdue Pharma, the original manufacturer of OxyContin, one of the most notorious and heavily abused painkillers, pleaded guilty in federal court to criminal charges that they misled regulators, doctors and patients about the drug’s risk of addiction and its potential to be abused.”

The Senators’ letters state that illegal off-label marketing “has been prevalent in the pharmaceutical and medical device industries” and “drug and device companies have been found to engage in marketing, regulatory, and public relations activities through supposedly independent medical organizations financed by industry.”

For example, recent investigative reporting from the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel/MedPage Today and ProPublica revealed extensive ties between companies that manufacture and market opioids and non-profit organizations such as the American Pain Foundation, the American Pain Society, the American Academy of Pain Medicine, the Federation of State Medical Boards, and the University of Wisconsin Pain and Policy Study Group.

According to the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel/MedPage Today, a “network of national organizations and researchers with financial connections to the makers of narcotic painkillers…helped create a body of dubious information” favoring opioids “that can be found in prescribing guidelines, patient literature, position statements, books and doctor education courses.”

In a ProPublica story published in the Washington Post, the watchdog organization examined the American Pain Foundation, a “health advocacy” organization that received “nearly 90 percent of its $5 million funding from the drug and medical device industry.” ProPublica wrote that its review of the American Pain Foundation’s “guides for patients, journalists, and policymakers play down the risks associated with opioids and exaggerate their benefits. Some of the foundation’s materials on the drugs include statements that are misleading or based on scant or disputed research.”

The lawyers at Heygood, Orr & Pearson have made it a career priority to hold drug manufacturers accountable and responsible for their actions.  If you or a loved one has experienced the tragedy of losing a family member as a result of using narcotics as prescribed, you and your family deserve answers to your questions.  If your loss was as a result of a defective drug or perhaps a physician’s negligence, you have the right to demand that the drug company or negligent physician be held responsible.  Contact us for a free consultation.