Senate probes ties among narcoticsmakers, pain organizations

The pharma industry's promotional practices are under scrutiny once again. This time, the spotlighted products are often-abused narcotic painkillers. The Senate Finance Committee launched an investigation yesterday into the ties among companies that sell those drugs, pain experts, patient advocacy groups and professional organizations, The New York Times reports.

Meanwhile, the American Pain Foundation, which recently drew attention from ProPublica for its financial ties to drugmakers, announced that it would "cease to exist, effective immediately," ProPublica reports. The organization blamed "irreparable economic circumstances" for its closure, saying its board voted May 3 to shut down. The foundation was among the organizations contacted by the Finance Committee.

At issue in the Senate probe: Whether the industry has unduly influenced the use of high-powered pain drugs, and whether companies fulfilled their obligations to highlight the drugs' risks. "Overdoses on narcotic painkillers have become epidemic and it's becoming clear that patients aren't getting a full and clear picture of the risks posed by their medications," Sen. Max Baucus, Finance Committee chairman, said in a statement.

Baucus and Sen. Charles Grassley, both veterans of pharamaceutical-industry probes, sent letters to drugmakers asking for payment information to 10 groups and 8 people, ProPublica says. They also asked about the companies' involvement in the formulation of several sets of pain-treatment guidelines.

The drugmakers contacted include Johnson & Johnson ($JNJ), which sells Duragesic; Purdue Pharma, which makes OxyContin; and Endo Pharmaceuticals ($ENDP), which sells Percocet and Opana. The senators also requested information from organizations in addition to the American Pain Foundation.

J&J's Janssen division told the Times that it works to deliver accurate information about its products, and that it will cooperate with the committee. Purdue also expressed a willingness to cooperate, while Endo didn't comment.

As the Times points out, narcotic painkillers once were used in a fairly limited way, mostly in cancer patients and the terminally ill. But some companies began to market them for other uses, such as arthritis treatment and back pain. At the same time, financial ties among the companies, academia and advocacy groups increased.

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