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Lawmaker calls for scrutiny of drug makers’ role amid opioid abuse epidemic

Lawmaker calls for scrutiny of drug makers’ role amid opioid epidemic
Rep. Tulsi Gabbard (D-Hawaii) is urging fellow lawmakers to look closely at drug companies, calling the marketing of painkillers “the root cause” of the opioid epidemic.
(Slaven Vlasic / Getty Images)

As Congress showed bipartisan support for legislation to address the nation’s opioid abuse epidemic, a lawmaker urged colleagues Thursday to look closely at the role of pharmaceutical companies, citing a Los Angeles Times investigation into the manufacturer of OxyContin.

In remarks on the House floor, Rep. Tulsi Gabbard (D-Hawaii) called the marketing of painkillers by drug companies “the root cause of the problems.”

She pointed to The Times investigation, which found that OxyContin, sold as a 12-hour drug, wears off early in many patients, exposing them to increased risk of addiction. Drugmaker Purdue Pharma, which has reaped $31 billion from the painkiller, had evidence of the duration problem for decades, but continued telling doctors it lasted 12 hours, in part to preserve revenues, The Times found.

“The problems created by companies like Purdue are felt deeply by families all across our country,” said Gabbard, an Iraq war veteran who has endorsed Democratic presidential candidate Bernie Sanders.

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Purdue disputed The Times’ findings and noted the Food and Drug Administration’s approval of OxyContin as a 12-hour drug.

The company responded to Gabbard’s comments with a statement noting the work Purdue has done to combat abuse, including the development of OxyContin tablets that are harder to snort and inject.

“Opioid abuse and addiction is one of our top national health challenges, and that’s why for more than a decade Purdue Pharma has undertaken efforts to help address this crisis,” the company said.

Without offering specific proposals, Gabbard said lawmakers should demand “action that holds pharmaceutical companies accountable who are profiting off of America’s addiction problem.

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“We’ve seen for decades that major pharmaceutical companies have misled the FDA, doctors and patients about the safety and risks of opioid dependency … in their efforts to sell more drugs,” Gabbard said.

Her remarks came as the House passed a bundle of bills to stem the opioid crisis. More than a dozen drug-related bills approved this week parallel similar legislation advanced in the Senate. In both chambers, the legislative effort has garnered bipartisan support. Congressional Republicans, particularly lawmakers facing tough reelection fights this fall, have trumpeted their response to the epidemic.

More than 190,000 people in the U.S. since 1999 have died from overdoses involving painkillers. Abuse of those painkillers is also blamed for the resurgence in heroin addiction.

The bills authorize grants to law enforcement and first responders, as well as programs to assist addicts and cut back on the diversion of prescription drugs to the black market. Congress is expected to send the legislation to the president this year.

Many patient advocates, law enforcement officials, clinicians and others on the front lines of the drug crisis have welcomed the bills, but said additional funding would be required for the programs to be effective.

harriet.ryan@latimes.com

noam.levey@latimes.com

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