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Campaign 2016 Why It Matters Opioid Epidemic

This Feb. 19, 2013, file photo, shows OxyContin pills arranged for a photo at a pharmacy in Montpelier, Vermont. More than 28,000 Americans died from overdosing on opiates in 2014, a record high for the nation. That’s 78 people per day, a number that doesn’t include the millions of family members, first responders and even taxpayers who feel the ripple of drug addiction in their daily lives. A rise in prescription painkillers is partially to blame: The sale of these drugs has quadrupled since 1999, and so has the number of Americans dying from an addiction to them. When prescriptions run out, people find themselves turning to the cheaper alternative heroin and, increasingly, the even more deadly drug fentanyl.

The Associated Press and The Center for Public Integrity teamed up to investigate the influence of pharmaceutical companies on state and federal lawmakers and policies regarding opioids, the powerful painkillers that have claimed the lives of 165,000 people in the U.S. since 2000.

The news agencies tracked proposed laws on the subject and analyzed data on how the companies and their allies deployed lobbyists and contributed to political campaigns.

Key findings from the reporting:

— Drug companies and allied advocates spent more than $880 million over the past decade on lobbying and political contributions at the state and federal level; by comparison, a handful of groups advocating for opioid limits spent $4 million. The money covered a range of political activities important to the drug industry, including legislation and regulations related to opioids.

— The opioid industry and its allies contributed to roughly 7,100 candidates for state-level offices, with the largest amounts going to governors and lawmakers who control legislative agendas, such as house speakers, senate presidents and health committee chairmen and women.

— The drug companies and allied groups have an army of lobbyists averaging 1,350 per year, covering all 50 state capitals.

— The opioid lobby's political spending adds up to more than eight times what the formidable gun lobby recorded for political activities during the same period.

— For more than a decade, a group called the Pain Care Forum has met with some of the highest-ranking health officials in the federal government, while quietly working to influence proposed regulations on opioids and promote legislation and reports on the problem of untreated pain. The group consists of drugmakers and opioid-friendly nonprofits they help fund, and is coordinated by the chief lobbyist for Purdue Pharma, the maker of OxyContin.

— Two of the drug industry's most active allies, the American Cancer Society Cancer Action Network and the Academy of Integrative Pain Management, have contacted legislators and other officials about opioid measures in at least 18 states, even in some cases when cancer patients were specifically exempted from drug restrictions. State lawmakers often don't know that these groups receive part of their funding from drugmakers.

— Five states have passed laws related to abuse-deterrent opioids and scores of bills have been introduced, with at least 21 using nearly identical language that some legislators said was supplied by pharmaceutical lobbyists. Pharmaceutical companies lobby for such laws, which typically require insurers and pharmacists to give preferential treatment to the patent-protected drugs, even though some experts say the deterrents are easily circumvented.


Assistant Local News Editor