Late last year, the Centers for Disease Control released new advisory guidelines urging primary care doctors to take a more conservative approach to prescribing opioids.
But doctors themselves are only part of the problem when it comes to prescribing these powerful and addictive drugs. Pharmaceutical companies often engage in aggressive, and sometimes illegal, drug marketing campaigns to strong-arm and shame doctors into prescribing their products.
A series of NPR stories by Robert Siegel on the CDC’s guidelines, which will not be mandatory to follow, helped highlight these marketing schemes.
One prominent doctor interviewed by Siegel blamed pharmaceutical marketing campaigns for some of the times she prescribed opioids to patients.
“I’m certain that there are people that I would treat differently today,” said Wanda Filer, president of the American Academy of Family Physicians. “I think we were influenced by some of the campaigns to provide more medication years back, and I think we all do that.”
Filer described a campaign in the late 1990s and early 2000s called “Pain is the Fifth Vital Sign.” The campaign, according to Filer, accused doctors of not paying enough attention to their patient’s suffering.
“I think many of us felt a little bit indicted,” Filer said.
A 2015 report from the National Institutes of Health said opioid prescriptions for pain treatment skyrocketed from 76 million in 1991 to 219 million in 2011.
Pharmaceutical companies have paid big settlements in recent years for illegally marketing their drugs.
Phillips & Cohen LLP represented a whistleblower that helped expose Cephalon’s illegal off-label marketing of several drugs, including the opioid Actiq. Though Actiq was only approved to treat cancer patients whose regular pain medication wasn’t working, Cephalon attempted to increase sales by marketing it for general pain treatment, an unapproved use, to general practitioners.
Cephalon pleaded guilty and agreed to pay a $425 million settlement as a result of the whistleblower case.