Accidental overdosing on prescription drugs now kills more people in some states than car accidents.  Now, the U.S. Senate Finance Committee is investigating the marketing practices of pharmaceutical companies that make highly addictive narcotic painkillers.

The Senate Finance Committee launched the investigation to help ensure consumers are not being misled into thinking that these opioid painkillers are completely safe. 

“Overdoses on narcotic painkillers have become epidemic, and it’s becoming clear that patients aren’t getting a full and clear picture of the risks posed by their medications,” said Senator Max Baucus, who along with Senator Charles E. Grassley has launched the investigation.

Non-Profits Promote Pain Drugs

Pain advocacy organizations have popped up in the past decade, including groups like the American Pain Foundation, which received nearly 90 percent of its funding in 2010 from the pharmaceutical and medical device industries.  These groups highlight the benefits of opioid painkillers and downplay the risks, which include addiction.

The American Pain Foundation has decided to dissolve amid the allegations that it has illegally marketed painkillers. However, the group has cited the decision to dissolve based on operational and financial problems.

The Senate investigation comes just months after Purdue Pharma (maker of the highly addictive Oxycontin) announced plans to release a painkiller 10 times stronger than Vicodin.  The painkiller contains pure hydrocodone, which doctors believe will lead to more accidental overdoses.

Three pharmaceutical companies are being investigated in the Senate probe, including Purdue Pharma, Endo Pharmaceuticals, and Johnson & Johnson.  Five different pain support groups are also being investigated, including 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.

Even the Joint Commission, a nonprofit hospital accreditation group, is being investigated for its partnership with Purdue Pharma.  The group not only brought pain management to hospitals’ attention as a national priority in 2001, but also distributed to those hospitals pain education materials promoting Oxycontin.  The group already pled guilty in 2007 to criminal charges that it understated the risk of addiction with Oxycontin.

Experts Voice Concern about Painkiller Addiction

Narcotic painkillers are currently the most widely prescribed drugs in the United States, despite their classification as highly addictive substances akin to illegal drugs.

Sales of painkillers have risen nearly 300 percent since 1999, and in proportion, the number of deaths due to painkiller overdoses has also risen.  Prescription painkillers are now available even to high school students who have held “pill parties” in which they bring different medications they find around their homes, including painkillers, and take pills without knowing what those pills are.

Even newborns are being born addicted to painkillers.  The Journal of the American Medical Association recently released a report finding that newborns are being born with drug withdrawal at a rate five times that of levels in 2000.

Pain awareness groups have “helped usher in an epidemic that’s killed 100,000 people by promoting aggressive use of opioids.  What makes this especially disturbing is that despite overwhelming evidence that their effort created a public health crisis, they’re continuing to minimize the risk of addiction,” said Dr. Andrew Kolodny, chairman of psychiatry at Maimonides Medical Center in New York.

Since the 1990s, big pharma has marketed these painkillers to more groups of people.  Before, the pills were largely used to help cancer patients, but companies like Purdue Pharma have sold doctors and consumers on broader uses for the pills, including arthritis and back pain.  Senators Baucus and Grassley noted “There is growing evidence pharmaceutical companies that manufacture and market opioids may be responsible, at least in part, for this evidence by promoting misleading information.”

While these painkillers do have their uses in some patients, the overprescribing of these pills is clearly out of control.  Oftentimes, doctors prescribe the pills without fully explaining to the patient the risk of addiction and overdose.  Critics have said that many doctors need to be retrained on when it’s appropriate to prescribe narcotic painkillers.

I will continue to post updates about this and other pill mill news.  For the latest information on prescription painkillers and pill mills, subscribe to my blog.