Patient advocacy group funded by success of painkiller drugs, probe finds
By Charles Ornstein and Tracy Weber
December 23, 2011
The news about narcotic painkillers is increasingly dire: Overdoses now kill nearly 15,000 people a year — more than heroin and cocaine combined. In some states, the painkiller death toll exceeds that of car crashes.
The head of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has declared the overdoses from opioid drugs like OxyContin an “epidemic.” And a growing group of experts doubts that they work for long-term pain.
But the pills continue to have an influential champion in the American Pain Foundation, which describes itself as the nation’s largest advocacy group for pain patients. Its message: The risk of addiction is overblown, and the drugs are underused.
What the nonprofit doesn’t highlight is the money behind that message.
The foundation collected nearly 90 percent of its $5 million funding last year from the drug and medical-device industry — and closely mirrors its positions, an examination by ProPublica found.
Although the foundation maintains it is sticking up for the needs of millions of suffering patients, records and interviews show that it favors those who want to preserve access to the drugs over those who worry about their risks.
Some of the foundation’s board members have extensive financial ties to drugmakers, ProPublica found, and the group has lobbied against federal and state proposals to limit opioid use. Painkiller sales have increased fourfold since 1999, but the foundation argues that pain remains widely undertreated.
The group says industry money has had no effect on its advocacy.
“I’m convinced with every shred of my body that our interest is improving the lives of people affected by pain,” said Will Rowe, the foundation’s chief executive, “and we want to do that the best way we can.”
The problem isn’t opioids, Rowe and other group leaders say. It’s poorly trained doctors who prescribe them too easily or in excess.
Yet, critics say the Baltimore-based foundation is making it harder to address a major public-health problem.
“If you were a drug company, wouldn’t it be smart to make it look like you had a patient-oriented group?” said Gary Franklin, a Washington state official who tussled with the foundation over new restrictions on high-dose painkillers.
Its funding makes the group “one and the same” with the pain industry, Franklin said.
ProPublica’s review found that the foundation’s guides for patients, journalists and policymakers play down the risks associated with opioids and exaggerate their benefits. Opioids, derived from the opium plant, reduce the perception of pain by attaching to opioid receptors in the brain, spinal cord and elsewhere in the body.
Some of the foundation’s materials on the drugs include statements that are misleading or based on scant or disputed research.
The group’s board includes some patients but also doctors who are paid to speak and consult for drug companies, a researcher whose clinic has relied on their funding for survival and a public-relations executive whose firm represents them.
Last year, one board member was the lead author of a study about a Cephalon drug. Cephalon sponsored the study, and its employees were co-authors. The study found that the drug, Fentora, was “generally safe and well-tolerated” in non-cancer patients even though it is only approved for severe cancer pain...