Senate probe keeps heat on J&J, Mylan, Depomed and others for their opioid marketing

Sen. Claire McCaskill kicked off a probe into opioid marketing at Johnson & Johnson, Mylan, Depomed, Insys and Purdue. (Photo courtesy of Sen. Claire McCaskill on Flickr)

Opioid makers have had no shortage of critics in recent years as the United States suffers the sting of a painful addiction epidemic. Now, a top senate Democrat is throwing the weight of her office behind efforts to dig into the industry’s marketing practices for the risky painkillers.

Sen. Claire McCaskill is targeting Johnson & Johnson, Mylan, Depomed, Insys and Purdue in her investigation, which is aimed at learning whether the companies had any role in the country’s “overutilization and overprescription” of the meds, according to a release.

In letters (PDF) to J&J CEO Alex Gorsky, Mylan CEO Heather Bresch, Depomed CEO Jim Schoeneck, Insys interim CEO Santosh Vetticaden and Purdue CEO Mark Timney, the senator is pressing for answers. Among the documents she’s requesting are internal opioid abuse estimates, info on marketing strategies, sales quotas and contributions to patient groups.

A Mylan spokesperson said the company welcomes McCaskill's "interest in this important matter and we share her concerns regarding the misuse of prescription opioids." Further, the company hopes the senator "expands her interest to include the top ten suppliers of opioid drugs to the U.S. market," according to the statement, as Mylan ranked 17 last year for the United States' top opioid suppliers.

"Despite being a small player in this area, we are committed to helping find solutions to the issue of opioid abuse and misuse," Mylan's spokesperson said.

McCaskill laid out evidence that suggests drug companies sought to downplay the risks of the painkillers and positively influence physicians’ perceptions of the meds. She wrote that the allegations “show an industry apparently focused not on preventing abuse but on fostering addiction as a central component of its business model.”

RELATED: 'Bribes,' 'kickbacks,' and 'fantastic' nights get ex-Insys CEO, execs indicted for conspiracy

For instance, one former Insys salesperson’s motto for patients was to “Start them high and hope they don’t die,” according to the McCaskill letter. Late last year, former Insys CEO Michael Babich and other former execs were arrested for leading a “nationwide conspiracy” to boost Subsys scripts, a potent painkiller approved by the FDA to treat cancer-related pain.

The problem was, according to the allegations, Insys marketed the med for other types of pains, in some cases leading to disastrous results for patients. The Justice Department is also looking into the company’s marketing practices.

RELATED: Chicago makes second run at Allergan, J&J, Purdue and others with painkiller lawsuit

Still, the other drugmakers involved in McCaskill’s probe aren’t strangers to opioid marketing scrutiny.

On multiple occasions, the city of Chicago has taken the opioid industry to court over its own drug abuse epidemic. In October, the city filed suit against Janssen and others alleging “deceptive” risk messaging on the meds.

That followed an attempt in November 2015 to hold Purdue, Teva, Janssen, Depomed, Endo and Allergan accountable for painkiller abuse problems in the city. Additionally, back in 2015, New Hampshire’s attorney general probed drugmakers for suspected false advertising on opioids.

RELATED: Pharma reps now need $750 marketing licenses to beat the streets in Chicago

On Wednesday, Purdue said its OxyContin "accounts for only 2% of the opioid analgesic prescription market nationally, but we are an industry leader in the development of abuse-deterrent technology and advocating for the use of prescription drug monitoring programs. We are reviewing Senator McCaskill’s letter and will respond accordingly.”

In an attempt to stem the tide of the abuse problem, the CDC last year rolled out guidelines calling for a drastic cutback in opioid prescribing. Chicago, for its part, has implemented a $750 pharma sales rep license aimed at curbing abuse. Separately, Pfizer and the city agreed to a marketing agreement that could be used as a template for other companies marketing the powerful meds.

Editor's note: This story was updated with a statement from Mylan and Purdue.