Bipartisan Senators Grassley and Baucus of the Senate Finance Committee are spearheading a government investigation into possible financial ties between prescription painkiller manufacturers and pain experts, patient advocacy groups and organizations that advise physicians how to prescribe specific drugs. The chief inquiry is whether the usage and safety information provided to physicians and patients by drug companies is free of financial motivations. As Senator Baucus noted in support of the investigation, “[o]verdoses 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.”
Narcotic painkillers are the most widely prescribed class of drugs in the United States. In just the last decade there has been a fourfold increase in specific narcotics, such as OxyContin, Vicodin and methadone. It is now widely believed that such a drastic increase in use translates into a higher rate of injury and death attributed to the use of painkillers. In fact, in some states, more people die annually from prescription drug overdoses than highway accidents.
Pharmaceutical companies that derive substantial business from the sale of narcotics—such as Johnson & Johnson and Purdue Pharma—have publicly stated that they will work together with the Senate Finance Committee and aid in their investigation. However, some reform advocates argue that it is the drug industry itself that is responsible for the proliferation of narcotic sales through a seemingly concerted effort to broaden the diseases and conditions for which narcotics are prescribed. Moreover, as prescriptions for these powerful narcotics became more encompassing, close ties between pharmaceutical companies and organizations that research and/or promote specific disease treatments began to solidify. In certain circumstances, these relationships ultimately culminated in patient advocacy and study groups lobbying state legislatures for more lenient narcotic prescription regulations.