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 a statement, Mundipharma said the campaign was a “disease awareness initiative” that did not violate the spirit of any law and did not market any medication.

In an interview, Hunt said he has asked the Therapeutic Goods Administration to investigate both marketing campaigns, along with some of Mundipharma’s other activities in Australia. Among those activities was the company’s “Pain Management Master Classes” for doctors. The classes, which have provided training to more than 5,000 doctors in Australia, have been praised by some as helpful for physicians seeking guidance on treating complex pain and condemned by others as a conflict of interest, given that they are run by a company that sells painkillers.

Mundipharma said the classes cover non-opioid treatment options and “strongly emphasize” that opioids are only appropriate after a comprehensive assessment.

Stevens, the Sydney pain specialist, has pushed back against several drug companies over their marketing tactics. A couple years ago, she says, Mundipharma was marketing Targin to surgeons at her hospital, reassuring them that they could prescribe higher doses.

Unlike pain specialists, surgeons are generally not well-educated on the intricacies of opioids, she says.

Stevens complained to Mundipharma and they stopped the practice. She says they have become much more cooperative since.

“Marketing, on the whole, is very clever and very successful — otherwise it wouldn’t be done,” she says. “We love a freebie... We’re no different from other members of the population. It’s just that we are targeted more.”

In a statement, Mundipharma said it strictly adheres to the Medicines Australia code of conduct and has always been transparent about the risks associated with opioids. Still, in a submission last year to the Therapeutic Goods Administration as it considered tougher restrictions on opioids, Mundipharma appeared to minimize the severity of Australia’s problem.

“We acknowledge that there is an issue associated with opioid misuse,” the company wrote. “However to describe the Australian situation as a ‘crisis’ is alarmist and risks stigmatizing patients who have a legitimate need for opioid analgesics to manage their pain.”

David Tonkin blames his son’s death on a system that allowed him to see 24 doctors and get 23 different medications from 16 pharmacies — all in the space of six months. From January to July 2014 alone, Matthew Tonkin got 27 prescriptions just for oxycodone.

The addiction that ultimately ended Matthew’s life began in 2012 after he was injured while serving with the Australian army in Afghanistan. When the 22-year-old arrived on leave at his father’s home in the Western Australian city of Perth, he held up a stack of OxyContin pill strips. The drugs had been prescribed to him by US doctors in Afghanistan for his injured hip and ankle.

“Look, Dad,” he said. “The Yanks really know how to look after you.”

Matthew was 14kg lighter than the previous time his father had seen him. He was suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) from the horrors of Afghanistan, including the death of his best friend, a fellow soldier. He was also suffering from a growing addiction to opioids. The addiction escalated after the army sent him to recover in Queensland, where doctors put him on an opioid called tramadol.

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