Big Pharma’s Marketing of Painkillers Launches Senate Probe

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.

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A Tribute to Ken & Esther Scarborough

The Scarborough family of Kountze, Texas, has been instrumental in the fight against prescription drug addiction. After their son died from a prescription drug overdose, the Scarboroughs realized the need to help other families who had lost a loved one.

Far too many families have been devastated by a loved one’s addiction to prescription drugs. Unlike the images we conjure up when we think of a typical drug addict, the faces of prescription drug addiction are the faces of ordinary Americans. One of the casualties of prescription drug addiction was Christopher Scarborough, the 25 year-old son of Ken and Esther Scarborough of Kountze, Texas.

I came to know the Scarboroughs when I represented them in a legal case, which sought to hold the negligent parties accountable for Christopher’s death and to raise awareness about these pill mills, which often masquerade as pain management clinics. In the lawsuit, we alleged that the healthcare providers and clinic owners were nothing more than “drug dealers” who were trying to pass off their “pill mill” as a legitimate pain management clinic.

When Christopher went to this walk-in “pain management clinic,” he was prescribed a cocktail of more than 300 highly addictive narcotic pills, without even receiving an exam or seeing a doctor. Shortly thereafter, Christopher tragically died of an accidental overdose.

Rather than dwell on their son’s heartbreaking death, the Scarboroughs have chosen to help other families who have lost loved ones to prescription drug addiction and accidental overdose.

Since their son’s death, the Scarboroughs have worked every day to fight against the prescription drug epidemic in their son’s name. In 2009, they founded Parents Against Prescription Drug Abuse (PAPDA), a 501(c)(3) nonprofit corporation. They have also testified before the Texas Senate, worked to pass legislation to regulate the so-called pain clinics, given countless talks, and comforted other parents who have also lost their children to prescription drug overdoses.

The Scarboroughs need your help to continue their fight. You can help by making a tax deductible contribution to PAPDA at www.papda.net. Your contribution, no matter how slight, will help Ken and Esther keep fighting every day to prevent the reckless prescribing of narcotics from claiming another innocent life.

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New Pain Pill to be Stronger than Vicodin

Purdue Pharma and several other major pharmaceutical companies have announced plans for new prescription painkillers that will contain pure hydrocodone. The pills will be 10 times stronger than Vicodin and will likely be more addictive than the prescription pain pills currently on the market.

Pharmaceutical company Purdue Pharma and three other companies have announced a new prescription drug that will contain pure hydrocodone, a highly addictive narcotic painkiller.  The pill is expected to be 10 times stronger than Vicodin, one of the strongest painkillers available on the market.

Hydrocodone is an opiate much like heroin, oxycodone, codeine, and morphine.  The United States is the largest consumer of hydrocodone prescription pills, using 99 percent of what is on the world market.  Much of the hydrocodone available today is combined with other painkillers like acetaminophen.

Over the years, these pain pills have been criticized for being too addictive.  For example, OxyContin, produced by Purdue Pharma, is the most abused pain pill in the United States. When OxyContin was first introduced onto the market in 1995, abusers quickly learned that they could get a stronger high from the time-release caplets by crushing them.

Today, prescriptions that contain hydrocodone are a quick second to oxycodone in terms of abuse.  A stronger painkiller that contains pure hydrocodone could be disastrous for a nation already suffering with substance abuse and addiction.

The market for pain pills is $10 billion, and pharmaceutical companies are coming up with new drugs to get into the lucrative market. But big pharmaceutical companies are marketing the new drugs as safer, arguing that fewer patients will experience liver problems like they do with drugs that contain acetaminophen.

A form of pure hydrocodone could be on the market as early as 2013, but with an even more addictive prescription on the market, more patients may become addicted to the drugs, leading to numerous overdoses that will strain hospitals resources.  Abuse of hydrocodone alone has led to an uptick in the number of emergency room visits related to hydrocodone abuse.  In 2000, more than 19,000 visits to the emergency room were related to hydrocodone abuse, but in 2008 that number grew more than four times to more than 86,000 visits.

Prescription drug addiction is a brain disease that can be fatal if undetected or untreated. To learn more about America’s prescription drug addiction epidemic, visit www.vanweylaw.com.

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Florida Attempts to Crack Down on Pill Mills

Florida has been criticized as being the “Pill Mill Capital of the U.S.” But a new database to track the prescribing and filling of prescription drugs is a needed addition that could help stop the state’s prescription drug epidemic.

Dallas dangerous drug attorney Kay Van Wey talks about pill mills

Known as the “Pill Mill Capital of the United States,” Florida has seen its fair share of problems associated with prescription drug abuse.  

But legislators are hoping to change the state’s bad reputation by implementing the Prescription Drug Monitoring Program, which keeps track of when, where, to whom, and by whom a prescription containing a controlled substance is prescribed.

Florida is not the first state to implement a prescription drug database.  More than 30 states currently have these databases in place.
 
Under Florida’s database, doctors and pharmacists must register beginning October 1st and will have seven days to file information regarding prescriptions for certain drugs that contain controlled substances.  Doctors and pharmacists will be able to check a patient’s prescription history before writing or filling any prescriptions.  Lawmakers hope that this will prevent pharmacy-hopping and give doctors an outlet in which suspicious activity can be reported.
 
Currently, nearly seven Floridians a day overdose on prescription drugs.  And according to Florida’s Attorney General Pam Bondi, more people are dying from overdosing on prescription drugs than they are from overdosing on illegal drugs.  
 
In 2010, doctors in Florida bought 89 percent of all Oxycodone sold in the United States.  That same year, the state had 1000 pain clinics up and running, but tougher laws have shut down 400 of them within the past year. And so far, 80 doctors have had their licenses suspended for prescribing large numbers of pills to patients without clear medical needs.  A doctor in Palm Beach County has even been charged with murder for prescribing a patient drugs on which he later overdosed and died.
 
As of now, the program must rely on private contributions and federal grants to continue running through June 30, 2012. The legislature is not allowing the program to accept donations from pharmaceutical companies in general, and particularly Purdue Pharma, the maker of the most widely abused prescription painkiller, OxyContin, which offered the program a donation of $1 million.
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Of Money and Mummies

The roots of the Sackler empire are based upon the fraudulent marketing techniques of their blockbuster drug, Oxycontin which is directly responsible for staggering numbers of needless deaths.

I recently visited the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City. There, you will find the Sackler Wing which contains treasures from the age of the Egyptian pharaohs. You will also find Arthur M. Sackler galleries at the Smithsonian Institute ,Harvard and Beijing University. Many people do not know the Sackler name apart from their association with these lofty cultural institutions.

Arthur M. Sackler has been referred to as a marketing genius and the godfather of the modern-day drug advertising industry.  He developed  drug marketing techniques such as: direct to consumer advertising , sponsoring luxurious all expense paid medical education courses for doctors, glamorizing drugs as a quick fixes, and  paying for "scientific" studies backing the need for and/or efficacy of the particular drug being studied.

Arthur Sackler, who was already rich, made a fortune marketing and selling Librium and Valium. Later, younger brothers Mortimer and Raymond  joined Arthur in acquiring a little known drug company called the Purdue Frederick Company. Arthur died in 1987 at the age of 73.  In 1996 the family owned company, now known as Purdue Pharma introduced it’s new blockbuster drug, Oxycontin.

Oxycontin is a very powerful, long acting narcotic which is should only be prescribed for  serious pain. Purdue Pharma  recognized even before the drug was marketed that they would face stiff resistance from doctors who were concerned about the potential for  OxyContin to be abused by patients or cause addiction.

Taking a chapter from brother Arthur’s drug marketing playbook, Mortimer and Raymond embarked on the most aggressive marketing campaign ever undertaken by a pharmaceutical company for a narcotic painkiller. Purdue Pharma marketed  OxyContin to doctors like general practitioners, who often had little training in the treatment of serious pain or in recognizing signs of drug abuse in patients. One of their techniques was to fly physicians in to conferences about the "inadequate treatment of pain" and the need for doctors to aggressively prescribe narcotics like Oxycontin to their patients.

Just a few years after the drug’s introduction in 1996, annual sales reached $1 billion.

 In reality, Oxycontin proved to be a powerfully addictive drug. Some users  including teenagers, soon discovered that chewing an OxyContin pill or crushing one and then snorting the powder or injecting it with a needle produced a high as powerful as heroin. By 2000, parts of the United States, particularly rural areas, began to see skyrocketing rates of addiction and crime related to use of the drug. The drug came to be known among certain circles as "hillbilly heroin"

 A  comprehensive review of the problem appeared in the journal Pain Physician http://www.painphysicianjournal.com/2006/october/2006;9;287-321.pdf

CDC and DEA data included in the review suggested that from 1997-2004 there was a:

> 556% increase in the sales of oxycodone;

> 500% increase in therapeutic grams of oxycodone used,

> 568% increase in the non-medical use of OxyContin (especially among young people)

 > 129% increase in opioid-related deaths [without heroin or cocaine]:

Using this data, the author extrapolated that the number of deaths from Oxycontin could surpass the deaths from 911 and the Iraq war combined!

 By 2007 the government caught up with Purdue which resulted in  three current and former executives pleaded guilty  to criminal charges that they misled regulators, doctors and patients about the drug’s risk of addiction and its potential to be abused. Purdue paid over $600 million in criminal and civil penalties.

Photographs by Don Petersen for The New York Times

From left, Howard R. Udell, the top lawyer for Purdue Pharma; Dr. Paul D. Goldenheim, the company’s former medical director; and Michael Friedman, Purdue’s president.

The last chapter of the Oxycontin saga has not been written. Despite their assertions to the contrary, Purdue Pharma has not cleaned up their act. Read between the lines on Partners Against Pain and you’ll see some of Arthur’s old tricks still being used.

There is much more to be written about Purdue Pharma and their dirty and deadly deeds. However, I was just so struck by seeing the Sackler name associated with such a venerable institution as the Metropolitan Museum of Art that I thought you should know what this family did to deserve having a wing of a famous art museum named after them.

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