Pharma paid for opioid influence, access to FDA officials

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A string of emails between academics and government health organizations has intensified scrutiny of the prescription painkiller market, against a backdrop that includes rising addiction levels and a knotty history in which pharmaceutical-industry supported advocacy groups advanced questionable support for pain medication. The latest turn comes from the Washington Post's look into a public information request by Columbus, OH, attorney Craig Mayton, who asked for the emails from the University of Washington.

The findings: academics rounded up reps from the National Institutes of Health (NIH), the FDA and researchers for a series of conferences in Washington, DC. Pharmaceutical companies were also invited to mix in, as long as they put up around $25,000 each time they took the hosts—University of Rochester's Robert Dworkin and the University of Washington's Dennis Turk—up on an invitation. The goal of these 10 years of meetings was to come up with benchmarks for assessing painkiller effectiveness.

The Washington Post notes that an unnamed FDA official later called these meetings “an essential collaborative effort.” Fierce Biotech's coverage shows an added component of this collaboration: the FDA's Bob Rappaport, chief of the FDA's analgesic division, incorporated information from these sessions in a PowerPoint presentation that showed the influence these meetings had on getting new painkillers approved.

The WaPo notes that FDA employees were not paid to attend, but two later landed private jobs within the industry and that the email stream between the hosts and government agencies included a suggestion by an unnamed NIH employee to hold these meetings at a government-agency site. Dworkin's emailed response: “It is difficult to imagine how an open meeting would develop consensus recommendations.”

While the NIH employee objected on grounds that the meetings could make it appear as though there were an improper relationship among the parties, government workers were not the only ones who hesitated. WaPo writes that an email between Dworkin and Turk mentions how Eli Lilly balked at the ticket price in 2003. This email dismisses Lilly's objection in the context of peer satisfaction with the meetings for “getting a huge amount for little money (impact on FDA thinking, exposure to FDA thinking, exposure to academic opinion leaders and their expertise…) and they know it.”

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