Addiction to opioid painkillers and overdose deaths have both been rising for more than a decade and are now considered to be at epidemic levels. Adding to the tragedy is the fact that opioid use has also led to a spike in heroin use and addiction. Now there is evidence from a new study that shows pharmaceutical companies that make prescription opioids have been paying doctors millions of dollars to push these dangerous drugs on patients.
Big Pharma Pushing Opioids, Especially Fentanyl
The recent study looked at a 29-month period of time and found that pharmaceutical companies paid doctors more than $46 million to promote prescription opioids. While there are a number of different opioid painkillers, almost half of the payments were made to promote fentanyl, one of the most potent and dangerous opioid drugs. A synthetic opioid, fentanyl can be up to 100 times more potent that morphine.
Because of its potency, fentanyl is useful for treating patients with severe pain, including terminal cancer patients. But it is also very dangerous because it is highly addictive and can more easily lead to an accidental overdose death than other, less potent, opioids. Fentanyl is attractive to those who abuse opioids and the number of opioid overdose deaths that are attributed specifically to fentanyl are on the rise.
According to the research, one in 12 doctors were given payments to promote opioids. One in five family practice doctors were paid some amount by pharmaceutical companies promoting opioid drugs. The research also indicated that the payment amounts increased in the period studied as compared to previous years. The findings are troubling and suggest that Big Pharma is playing an important role in the over-prescribing of these dangerous drugs.
Payments Do Influence Doctors, Even Small Amounts
Other studies have found that these payments made to doctors do influence how and what they prescribe patients. In the current study researchers found that the median amount pharmaceutical companies paid an individual doctor was just $15 but that the top one percent of physicians were given more than $2,600. Previous studies found that these payments influence doctors, and it is not just the big gifts. Even smaller gifts or free meals can significantly increase the likelihood a doctor will prescribe the company’s medication to patients.
CDC Guidelines for Opioids and Pain Management
In light of the increases in addiction and overdoses, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) has issued guidelines for doctors helping patients manage pain. The updated guidelines suggest lower dosages, focusing safety precautions on all patients, not just those considered high risk for abusing the drugs, and specific recommendations for monitoring the use of opioids and deciding when to discontinue use for a patient.
The guidelines also recommend the use of opioid formulations that are abuse deterrent. The payments made to doctors for promoting opioids did not emphasize these safer alternatives. Just one-fifth of the payments were to market these formulations, which means that the riskier opioids are more heavily marketed.
The results from the current study demonstrate clearly that pharmaceutical companies have a responsibility in the war against opioid addiction, overdoses, and rising heroin use. These companies are promoting drugs that are causing a lot of destruction in people’s lives and that are directly linked to thousands of deaths. To help curb the devastation of the opioid epidemic, these companies need to step up and be more responsible about marketing.