Anti-Addiction Group’s Big Pharma Donations Raise Eyebrows

By Keri Blakinger 02/12/18

The Addiction Policy Forum reportedly took "tens of millions" in donations from one Big Pharma group.

a ball of money sitting atop a businessman's hand.

A key anti-addiction advocacy group recently announced its acceptance of an undisclosed amount of money from a Big Pharma trade group, a move that has sparked concerns among lawmakers and other advocates. 

But Jessica Hulsey Nickel defended her group’s controversial funding source as an alliance-building shift necessary in the fight against opioid addiction.

“No one has cured a disease by making an enemy of the white lab coats,” she told the New York Times. “Sometimes our resistance to working with new partners is an old way of thinking.”

Nickel’s group, the Addiction Policy Forum, announced in December that it had taken money from the Pharmaceutical Research and Manufacturers of America (PhRMA). Though the Washington advocate declined to offer a specific dollar figure on the donations, PhRMA chief executive Stephen J. Ubl pegged it in the “tens of millions,” according to the Times

Just weeks before Nickel’s announcement, she’d declined to offer support for a tax on opioids in Minnesota when industry lobbyists brought her in to speak to lawmakers as part of their efforts to oppose the bill.

“She was insisting that she was totally independent and they hadn’t put any strings on her,” said state Sen. Chris Eaton. “I wasn’t buying it.”

Other advocates saw the unusual funding decision as a source of concern. “You cannot hold an organization accountable if they are paying your bills,” Lexi Reed Holtum of the Steve Rummler HOPE Network told the Times.

PhRMA framed its Addiction Policy Forum backing as part of a commitment to tackling the opioid crisis head-on. “We feel very strongly about trying to do our part,” Ubl said.

But if that’s what is happening, it’s not readily apparent to everyone. “The industry is making investments, trying to influence policymakers that this is not a problem of overprescribing opioids,” said Dr. Andrew Kolodny, co-director of Opioid Policy Research Collaborative at Brandeis University’s Heller School for Social Policy and Management. “They are investing in nonprofit groups that will do the same."

Raised in California as the child of two addicted parents, Nickel got into addiction policy work when she took a job under Office of National Drug Control Policy (ONDCP) former director Barry McCaffrey. She later launched her own lobbying firm, representing various nonprofits and companies like Vivitrol maker, Alkermes.

The nonprofit she heads up now boasts about 30 employees and drew in roughy $4.7 million in funding last year, an increase of about $4 million from the year before. 

Please read our comment policy. - The Fix

Keri Blakinger is a former drug user and current reporter living in Texas. She covers breaking news for the Houston Chronicle and previously worked for the New York Daily News and the Ithaca Times. She has written about drugs and criminal justice for the Washington Post, Salon, Quartz and more. She loves dogs and is not impressed by rodeo food. Find Keri on LinkedIn and Twitter.