Editor's note: This is the second installment of an ongoing series. The first day covers the state political efforts surrounding opioids and a subsequent piece shows how drugmakers are pushing a profitable, yet unproven, remedy.
For more than a decade, members of a little-known group called the Pain Care Forum have blanketed Washington with messages touting prescription painkillers’ vital role in the lives of millions of Americans, creating an echo chamber that has quietly derailed efforts to curb U.S. consumption of the drugs, which accounts for two-thirds of the world’s usage.
In 2012, drugmakers and their affiliates in the forum sent a letter to U.S. senators promoting a hearing about an influential report on a “crisis of epidemic proportions”: pain in America. Few knew the report stemmed from legislation drafted and pushed by forum members and that their experts had helped author it. The report estimated more than 100 million Americans — roughly 40 percent of adults — suffered from chronic pain, an eye-popping statistic that some researchers call deeply problematic.
The letter made no reference to another health issue that had been declared an epidemic by federal authorities: drug overdoses tied to prescription painkillers. Deaths linked to addictive drugs like OxyContin, Vicodin and Percocet had increased more than fourfold since 1999, accounting for more fatal overdoses in 2012 than heroin and cocaine combined.
An investigation by the Center for Public Integrity and The Associated Press reveals that similar feedback loops of information and influence play out regularly in the nation’s capital, fueled by money and talking points from the Pain Care Forum, a loose coalition of drugmakers, trade groups and dozens of nonprofits supported by industry funding that has flown under the radar until now.
Hundreds of internal documents shed new light on how drugmakers and their allies shaped the national response to the ongoing wave of prescription opioid abuse, which has claimed the lives of roughly 165,000 Americans since 2000, according to federal estimates.
Painkillers are among the most widely prescribed medications in the U.S., but pharmaceutical companies and allied groups have a multitude of legislative interests beyond those drugs. From 2006 through 2015, participants in the Pain Care Forum spent over $740 million lobbying in the nation’s capital and in all 50 statehouses on an array of issues, including opioid-related measures, according to an analysis of lobbying filings by the Center for Public Integrity and AP.
The same organizations reinforced their influence with more than $140 million doled out to political campaigns, including more than $75 million alone to federal candidates, political action committees and parties.
That combined spending on lobbying and campaigns amounts to more than 200 times the $4 million spent during the same period by the handful of groups that work for restrictions on painkillers. Meanwhile, opioid sales reached $9.6 billion last year, according to IMS Health, a health information company.
“You can go a long, long way in getting what you want when you have a lot of money,” said Professor Keith Humphreys of Stanford University, a former adviser on drug policy under President Barack Obama. “And it’s only when things get so disastrous that finally there’s enough popular will aroused to push back.”