Mon, Sep 09, 2019 - Page 7 News List

Opioid crisis goes global as deaths surge in Australia

Canberra says it is now taking the problem seriously as calls go out to heed the warnings provided in the US

By Kristen Gelineau  /  AP, BLACK RIVER, Australia

In the US, drug companies such as OxyContin maker Purdue Pharma are facing more than 2,000 lawsuits accusing them of overstating the benefits of opioids, downplaying their addictiveness and encouraging doctors to prescribe the drugs to more patients in higher amounts.

In Australia, pharmaceutical companies by law cannot directly advertise to consumers, but are free to market the drugs to medical professionals. And they have done so, aggressively and effectively, by sponsoring swanky conferences, running doctors’ training seminars, funding research papers, giving money to pain advocacy groups and meeting with doctors to push the drugs for chronic pain.

“If the relevant governing bodies had ensured that the way the product was being marketed to doctors especially was different, I don’t necessarily think we would see what we’re seeing now,” says Bee Mohamed, who until recently was the chief executive of ScriptWise, a group devoted to reducing prescription drug deaths in Australia. “We’re trying to undo 10 years of what marketing has unfortunately done.”

Mundipharma, the international arm of Purdue, has received particular criticism for its marketing tactics in Australia. Last year, addiction specialist Simon Holliday filed a complaint against the company over a marketing pamphlet for its drug Targin, a painkiller designed to prevent the constipation that is common with other opioids.

The brochure cited 2009 guidance from the Royal Australian College of General Practitioners that says weak opioids are less effective than strong ones. However, in a statement, the doctors’ group said the ad was misleading and that Mundipharma appeared to have deliberately ignored its updated clinical guidelines.

Holliday filed a complaint with Medicines Australia, the pharmaceutical industry’s regulator. However, membership to Medicines Australia is not mandatory, and Mundipharma declined to participate in the complaints process because it had dropped out as a member.

Holliday then went to the Therapeutic Goods Administration. He got nowhere. So he wrote to Hunt, the health minister, and other lawmakers. He received no response.

In a statement to reporters, Mundipharma said that the guidelines it referenced were current at the time the pamphlet was in circulation.

“The material was balanced, accurate, fully supported by the product information, consistent with the approved indication and contained adequate safety information,” the company said.

This year, Mundipharma has faced scrutiny over a promotional campaign that critics say violates the spirit of Australia’s law banning drug marketing to consumers.

The campaign, which encouraged people suffering painkiller-induced constipation to talk to their doctors, never mentions Targin by name, because it legally cannot. However, the advertising agency that Mundipharma hired described on its Web site how they worked around that regulation, by using print, radio and online ads to target regions where pain medication use was high. Google search data showed that people looking for information on constipation from painkillers used terms like “blocked up,” so the agency used the phrase “blocked pipes.”

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