Will Big Pharma Put a Stop to Deceitful Opioid Marketing?

By Zachary Siegel 07/07/16

Pfizer has agreed to a new opioid marketing code of conduct and health officials are hoping that other Big Pharma companies will follow suit.

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Will Big Pharma Put a Stop to Deceitful Opioid Marketing?

The manufacturer of OxyContin, Purdue Pharma, reaped $31 billion in revenue on what’s been uniformly exposed as a deceitful marketing scheme. 

Purdue's product addicted millions of Americans by using faulty data at best and outright manipulated data at worst, to market OxyContin to doctors looking for a quick fix. Many have overdosed and died because of these actions. 

As a result, Americans hold justifiable anger toward the billionaire boogeymen who run Big Pharma. But Pfizer, the world’s second-largest drug company, is cleaning up its reputation by agreeing to put an end to aggressive and fraudulent marketing practices when it comes to powerful opioids. 

Though the pharmaceutical giant does not sell nearly as many opioids as some other companies, it has agreed to a written code of conduct with respect to its marketing campaigns. Pfizer promised to disclose that addiction to narcotic painkillers, even when taken as prescribed, is a serious risk factor. Part of what the company agreed to requires it to closely monitor that third-party materials, such as brochures sent to doctors, “fairly and accurately describe the risks and benefits of opioids.”

Pfizer also pledged not to promote opioids for any “off-label” uses like back pain or headaches. The company also promised to acknowledge that the research into opioid regimens beyond 12 weeks have yielded mixed results. However, many chronic pain patients are on such a regimen and require opioids for their daily functioning. It’s likely many chronic pain patients are physically dependent on opioids but that does not mean they are addicted, i.e. continuing to engage in a behavior despite the negative consequences it brings. 

The code of conduct was agreed upon because the city of Chicago sued five other opioid manufacturers (including Purdue) over the alleged use of deceitful marketing campaigns. Stephen R. Patton, Chicago’s corporation counsel, said Pfizer is “a company that has agreed to embrace what we think are the common-sense proscriptions that we are seeking as part of our lawsuit. We hope that this trailblazing agreement ... will set the bar for others in this industry.”

Patton explained that Chicago filed the lawsuit because there is evidence that opioid manufacturers continue to misconstrue the risks associated with opioid painkillers in their marketing campaigns, despite Purdue pleading guilty for doing exactly that. 

But not everyone is buying Pfizer’s attempt to makeover their image. Adriane Fugh-Berman, an associate professor of pharmacology and physiology at Georgetown University School of Medicine, told The Washington Post that she saw limited value in the agreement.

“Maybe it’s a first step, but I think counting on pharmaceutical companies to get us out of this opioid mess is not likely to be successful,” she said.

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Zachary Siegel is a freelance journalist specializing in science, health and drug policy. His reporting has also appeared in Slate, The Daily Beast, Salon, Huffington Post, among others. He writes often about addiction, sometimes drawing from his own experience. You can find out more about Zachary on Linkedin or follow him on Twitter.

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