WASHINGTON — U.S. Sen. Maggie Hassan, D-NH, pounced on a pharmaceutical drug maker during a Senate hearing Tuesday, citing New Hampshire lawsuits that allege the improper marketing of opioids.
Executives with seven of the top drug makers faced tough questioning during a Senate Finance Committee hearing called to address the rising costs of prescription drugs.
But Hassan, newly named to this panel, shifted the topic to opioid addiction.
She repeatedly pressed an executive with Janssen Pharmaceuticals regarding its role in promoting a theory known as “pseudoaddiction” which she said led to patients being prescribed more opioids after they had already become hooked on them.
The theory was some patients who weren’t addicted were showing signs of abuse because they were not being given enough pills to treat their pain.
“I’m sorry, I’m not sure, I’m not familiar with that term,” answered Jennifer Taubert, worldwide chairman of pharmaceuticals for Johnson & Johnson, which owns Janssen.
Hassan shot back, “Well, let me fill you in then — pseudoaddiction is an unproven and dubious concept that asserts that certain patients present signs of addiction because they were prescribed insufficient doses of opioids. Those peddling this pseudoaddiction concept say that instead of providing addiction treatment when somebody shows the signs of addiction, the doctor should increase their opioid doses.
“Even one of the original doctors who pushed this theory now admits it was, his quote ‘an excuse to give patients more’ drugs.”
Hassan, a former governor and lawyer, asked Taubert to explain how such a practice was “appropriate and responsible.”
“Nearly 500 people in New Hampshire died from overdoses last year and nearly 500 the year before that. And companies like Janssen and Purdue Pharma fueled this epidemic employing deceptive and truly unconscionable marketing tactics, despite the known risks, so you could sell more drugs to maximize your profits and now you are refusing to take responsibility for your company’s role in this crisis,” Hassan continued.
Taubert defended the company’s marketing practices.
“Everything I have seen leads me to conclusively believe that everything that we have done with our products when we promoted opioid products, which we stopped marketing a long time ago, was very appropriate and responsible,” Taubert said. “However, that being said, we do believe that we have a leadership position to take in helping with this.”
The city of Manchester’s 2017 lawsuit highlights this theory as one of the practices some drug companies used to continue to sell more and more opioids.
“Defendants and their third-party allies developed and disseminated each of the following misrepresentations with the intent and expectation that, by instructing patients and prescribers that signs of addiction are actually the product of untreated pain, doctors would prescribe opioids to more patients and continue to prescribe them, and patients would continue to use opioids despite signs that the patient was addicted,” the Manchester suit stated.
Dr. Lynn Webster, a medical director for a Utah pain clinic, is also a defendant in Manchester’s lawsuit, which states Webster promoted this theory in a 2007 book and has since denounced it.
“Years later, Dr. Webster reversed himself, acknowledging that (pseudoaddiction) obviously became too much of an excuse to give patients more medication,” the Manchester lawsuit said.
The state of New Hampshire and more than a dozen communities have sued drug companies over their marketing of opioids.
Lawyers for the drug makers and their executives said the drugs were federally approved and doctors were prescribing the doses, not drug companies.
On Tuesday, Hassan rebutted the industry’s claim it was not a party to fueling the opioid drug crisis.
“Right now it is hard for me to take the industry’s goal here as promoting good health seriously when its behavior to maximize sales of opioids created an epidemic,” Hassan said.