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Study Links Drugmakers' Marketing To Doctors To More Opioid Overdose Deaths

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What could be contributing to the high opioid death rates despite all the actions being taken to control them? A new study finds that the drugmakers’ opioid marketing to doctors is linked with more opioid prescriptions, and eventually more opioid deaths.

Federal Data On Opioids By County

To determine exactly to what extent pharmaceutical companies’ marketing to doctors is linked to eventual deaths from prescription opioids, researchers of a new study analyzed three data sets: one from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention that shows opioid prescribing rates, another data set from the CDC showing mortality numbers from opioid overdoses, and data from the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services Open Payments database showing drugmakers’ payments to doctors.

In total, researchers found that drugmakers spent $39.7 million in opioid marketing for 67,507 doctors from Aug. 1, 2013 to Dec. 31, 2015. And for every three payments per 100,000 people in a county, there was an 18 percent increase in opioid overdose deaths.

In fact, the counties where drugmakers gave more industry marketing to doctors had more opioid prescriptions and opioid overdose deaths than the counties with less aggressive marketing.

Opioid Marketing

Evidently, such “payments” don’t necessarily come in the form of money, but may be in the form of frequent free meals. In fact, meals are the most common form of opioid-related marketing to doctors. While this does not seem like much, providing meals for thousands of doctors could also mean that they are prescribing opioids to thousands of patients who may then be at risk of eventual opioid overdose.

According to some experts, this shows that it might be high time for lawmakers to consider limiting drugmakers’ marketing to doctors, especially since the evidence shows that what matters is not the value of what was given to the doctor, but the fact that the marketing took place at all. Furthermore, it’s possible that the changes might not even be recognizable to doctors, but has become more of a subconscious response to exposure to frequent opioid marketing.

New Jersey, for instance, placed a spending $10,000 limit per doctor, but some now say that it’s not just the amount spent that should be limited, but the amount of interactions.

The study is published in JAMA Network Open.

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