The news about narcotic painkillers is increasingly dire: Overdoses now kill nearly 15,000 people a year, more than heroin and cocaine combined. In some states, the painkiller death toll exceeds that of car crashes.
The head of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has declared the overdoses from opioid drugs such as OxyContin an “epidemic.” And a growing group of experts doubts that they work for long-term pain.
But the pills continue to have an influential champion in the American Pain Foundation, which describes itself as the nation’s largest advocacy group for pain patients. Its message: The risk of addiction is overblown, and the drugs are underused.
What the nonprofit organization doesn’t highlight is the money behind that message.
The foundation collected nearly 90 percent of its $5 million in funding last year from the drug and medical-device industry and closely mirrors its positions, an examination by ProPublica found.
Although the foundation maintains it is sticking up for the needs of millions of suffering patients, records and interviews show that it favors those who want to preserve access to the drugs over those who worry about their risks.
Some of the foundation’s board members have extensive financial ties to drugmakers, ProPublica found, and the group has lobbied against federal and state proposals to limit opioid use. Painkiller sales have increased fourfold since 1999, but the foundation argues that pain remains widely undertreated.
The group says industry money has had no effect on its advocacy.
“I’m convinced with every shred of my body that our interest is improving the lives of people affected by pain,” said Will Rowe, the foundation’s chief executive, “and we want to do that the best way we can.”
The problem isn’t opioids, Rowe and other group leaders say. It’s poorly trained doctors who prescribe them too easily or in excess.
Yet critics say the Baltimore-based foundation is making it harder to address a major public health problem.
“If you were a drug company, wouldn’t it be smart to make it look like you had a patient-oriented group?” said Gary Franklin, a Washington state official who tussled with the foundation over new restrictions on high-dose painkillers.
Its funding makes the group “one and the same” with the pain industry, Franklin said.