A U.S. Senate investigation of the pharmaceutical industry targets some of the nation’s most prominent drug makers, medical organizations and pain physicians who advocate the use of narcotic painkillers.
Citing an “epidemic of accidental deaths and addiction” caused by opioid painkillers, Senate Finance Committee Chairman Max Baucus (D-Montana) and Sen. Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa) sent letters to Purdue Pharma, Endo Pharmaceuticals, Johnson & Johnson and nine pain organizations, saying “there 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.”
The letters accuse industry supported pain organizations of playing a major role in spreading that misinformation.
“Improper relationships between pharmaceutical companies and the organizations that promote their drugs can put lives at risk. These painkillers have an important role in health care when prescribed and used properly, but pushing misinformation on consumers to boost profits is not only wrong, it’s dangerous,” Sen. Baucus said in a statement
“The problem of opioid abuse is bad and getting worse,” Sen. Grassley said. “Something has to change. A greater understanding of the extent to which drug makers underwrite literature on opioids is a good start. Doctors and patients should know if the medical literature and groups that guide the drugs’ use are paid for by the drugs’ manufacturers and if so, how much.”
Dubious Information about Painkillers
A recent series of investigative reports by ProPublica and the Milwaukee Journal/Med Page Today revealed that pharmaceutical companies promote and market their opioids through industry funding of pain organizations. “Dubious information” favoring opioids was used by the organizations in their patient guidelines, position statements, books, educational courses and lobbying efforts.
Baucus and Grassley asked the three drug makers for a list of all payments they’ve made since 1997 to nine pain organizations, including the American Pain Foundation, the American Academy of Pain Medicine, the American Pain Society and the Federation of State Medical Boards.
In addition, the letter asks for information on payments made to several prominent physicians in the field of pain management, including Scott Fishman, chief of the Department of Pain Medicine, University of California, Davis; Perry Fine, Professor of Anesthesiology, Pain Research Center, University of Utah School of Medicine; Myra Christopher, Kathleen M. Foley Chair for Pain and Palliative Care at the Center for Practical Bioethics; and Lynn Webster, medical director and founder of the Lifetree Clinical Research & Pain Clinic in Salt Lake City, Utah.
“I think that the senators don’t have all of the facts. They don’t have enough information. They’ve seen one side of it,” said Dr. Webster, who is president elect of the American Academy of Pain Medicine (AAPM). “This gives me and our organization an opportunity to provide I think a clear picture that what we’ve been doing has been in the best interest of patients and physician education.”
“There are probably no medical professional organizations out there, I would be surprised if there are any, that doesn’t accept funding from industry. But that doesn’t mean they have any input in the content of the information that gets delivered,” Webster told American News Report. “We’ve been very good at delivering an honest and I think unbiased, academic approach to different products in the field of medicine.”
American Pain Foundation Shuts Down
Webster said the AAPM does accept funding from industry, but companies have no say in how the money is spent by the organization. He also said he was “saddened” to hear that another industry supported pain society, the American Pain Foundation, had ceased operations. The organization made the announcement on the same day the senators released their letter, citing “irreparable economic circumstances.”
“I believe the accusation that the American Pain Foundation was promoting unsafe use of medications, particularly opioids, is fallacious. That’s just not true,” said Webster. “I think the loss of the American Pain Foundation is huge. I think few people understand the magnitude of this loss that we’re going to experience because they’re not there. I am very saddened by their disappearance. They’ve done extraordinary work.”
Purdue Pharma, the maker of OxyContin, issued a statement saying the company was reviewing the senators’ letter. “We look forward to cooperating with the committee on this matter,” said James Heins, senior director of public affairs for the company.