May 9, 2012 — The U.S. Senate Finance Committee has launched an investigation in response to journalist investigations which have unearthed evidence that opioid painkiller drug companies paid advocacy organizations millions of dollars to promote the aggressive, long-term use of opioid painkillers, all while downplaying the risks of addiction and other deadly side effects. Popular opioid painkillers include Oxycontin, Vicodin, morphine, and more.
The senators are concerned that the growing epidemic of opioid addiction and overdose deaths are at least partly due to aggressive promotion of the drugs, which minimized the risk of addiction and overdoses. Throughout the 1990s and 2000s, more and more doctors began prescribing opioid painkillers for chronic, painful conditions such as back pain, headache, and fibromyalgia. As prescriptions soared, so did the rate of addiction and overdoses. In 2008, nearly 15,000 people died from opioid overdoses — which is more overdose deaths than cocaine or heroin combined. However, most of these deaths involve illicitly obtained drugs.
The Senate Finance Committee is requesting correspondence, records, and marketing information documenting the links between several major drug companies and nonprofit advocacy organizations. The pharmaceutical companies involved are Johnson & Johnson, Purdue Pharma (maker of OxyContin), and Endo Pharmaceuticals. The advocacy groups are the American Pain Foundation, the American Academy of Pain Medicine, the American Pain Society, the Wisconsin Pain & Policy Studies Group, and the Center for Practical Bioethics.. Purdue Pharma already pled guilty to federal charges from 2007 that it intentionally and illegally misled doctors, regulators, and consumers about the risks of addiction with OxyContin.
The American Pain Foundation, which claims to be the nation’s largest organization for pain treatment, received 90% of its $5 million in funding from drug companies. The group has recently shut down, due to “economic circumstances.”
The American Pain Foundation and other nonprofit advocacy groups were responsible for publishing pamphlets, prescribing guidelines, patient literature, and doctor education courses. These materials advocated the aggressive use of painkillers for chronic pain conditions, while minimizing the risk of addiction.
Despite increasing public awareness about the risk of overdoses and death from opioid painkillers, prescriptions for these medications have skyrocketed in recent years. The market for OxyContin alone is estimated to be around $3 billion per year.
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