US lawmakers demand UN health agency change opioid guidance

Published 10:34 am Thursday, May 23, 2019

Two U.S. lawmakers are calling on the World Health Organization to withdraw pain care guidelines that include what they say are false claims about the safety of prescription opioids.

They say the guidelines could lead other countries toward the same kind of addiction and overdose crisis that has plagued the U.S. in recent years.

The members of Congress say a 2011 manual and 2012 guidelines on opioids were influenced by people with financial connections to Purdue Pharma, the company that makes the powerful opioid painkiller OxyContin.

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“We have come to believe that Purdue has leveraged its financial ties to successfully impact the content of the WHO’s guidelines,” Reps. Katherine Clark, a Massachusetts Democrat, and Hal Rogers, a Kentucky Republican, say in a letter to the health arm of the United Nations. “As a result, the WHO is, in effect, promoting the chronic use of opioids.”

Clark said the report was put together because the WHO did not change its guidelines after a 2017 letter from her, Rogers and other members of Congress raised concerns that Purdue’s international arm was aggressively marketing opioids abroad.

“We have received the most recent letter from Congress and are reviewing it point by point,” WHO spokesman Christian Lindmeier said in an email Wednesday.

Purdue, which operates only in the U.S., called the report an attempt to “vilify” the company and noted that the U.S. Food and Drug Administration has approved OxyContin as safe and effective for treating chronic pain. “Purdue is deeply concerned about the impact of opioid abuse and addiction and we remain committed to simultaneously supporting efforts that help pain patients in need and create real solutions to this public health crisis,” the company said in a statement.

The company also says it discloses any potential conflicts of interest.

A spokeswoman for Mundipharma, an international drug company owned by the Sackler family, which also owns Stamford, Connecticut-based Purdue, said the company would not comment on the report. A spokesman for several members of the Sackler family also did not comment.

Opioids, a class of drugs that includes prescription painkillers as well as heroin and fentanyl, has become the leading cause of accidental death in the U.S. in recent years and were linked to more than 390,000 deaths in the country between 2000 and 2017.

Purdue and other drugmakers and distributors are facing about 2,000 lawsuits from state, local and tribal governments across the U.S. seeking to hold them accountable for the crisis. The suits claim Purdue aggressively promoted use of its drugs on more patients and at higher doses while downplaying the addiction risks. They also say the company pushed to have the drugs used for chronic pain when they traditionally had been used mostly for acute pain, such as after surgeries, or for pain from cancer or other terminal conditions.

The members of Congress say the company has tried to do the same thing around the world.

“It’s the exact same strategies and it is infuriating and terrifying to see the World Health Organizations having incorporated these strategies,” Clark said in an interview Wednesday.