Opioid Makers Cut Back On Marketing Payouts To Doctors

By Keri Blakinger 07/09/18

In 2016, Big Pharma shelled out more than $15 million to doctors for opioid-related marketing—33% less than the year prior.

doctor with cash in his lab coat pocket.

Drugmakers are cutting back on opioid-related marketing payouts to doctors, according to a data analysis by ProPublica

The newly released figures come as the latest update to the nonprofit news site’s Dollars for Docs online tool that tracks payments to physicians from drug companies and other medical companies. 

In 2016, the latest numbers show, Big Pharma shelled out more than $15 million to doctors in exchange for opioid-related speaking and consulting work. That was 33% less than the 2015 figure and 21% less than the 2014 figure. Repeatedly, research has drawn a link between marketing and prescribing practices. 

“Given the deluge of media attention with the opioid epidemic, I think we’ve seen the pendulum swing in the opposite direction,” Michael Barnett, an assistant professor of health policy and management at Harvard, told ProPublica. “If this is actually a result of manufacturers actually saying, ‘Holy crap, people actually care about opioids being used responsibly’ and they’re aware that their advocacy and payments to physicians could be seen as pushing these medications in a way that is ethically dubious, then that’s a beneficial development and something I’d like to see more of.”

The shift comes amid a growing number of lawsuits against drug companies accused of downplaying the risks of painkillers in aggressive marketing campaigns over a yearslong uptick in opioid use. 

It’s not clear exactly what’s driving the changing numbers, though, experts said. 

"It's possible that the pharmaceutical companies voluntarily reduced their marketing, realizing that they may have been contributing to overprescribing,” Dr. Scott Hadland of Boston University School of Medicine told ProPublica.

At the same time the marketing dollars decreased, the number of opioid prescriptions started on the downswing as well. But, so far, the fall in marketing funds has outpaced the reduction in prescriptions.

OxyContin maker Purdue Pharma cut off its speaker program for the drug in 2016, and this year the company halted all physician-targeted promotional efforts of its addictive painkillers and laid off sales reps. 

“While the development of important new medicines will be the company’s priority going forward,” the company said last month, “we will continue to support our opioid analgesic product portfolio while continuing our commitment to take meaningful steps to reduce opioid abuse and addiction.”

The FDA greenlit OxyContin in 1995 and since then it’s been Purdue’s biggest financial success, even amid the rise of generic alternatives and the growing popularity of other opioid painkillers. 

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.