Pfizer Gets in Front of Opioid Marketing Issue

July 8, 2016 – As organized medicine, politicians and the public seek to reverse the scourge of opioid addiction, Pfizer made a move that shows a good-faith effort to become a part of the problem’s solution. The company signed an agreement June 30 with the City of Chicago to follow a written code of conduct for marketing opioids that “some officials hope will set a standard for manufacturing of narcotics and help curb the use of addictive painkillers,” according to a July 5 article in The Washington Post.

“While some criticize Pfizer and the City of Chicago for an agreement where Pfizer only promised to obey its own internal policies and to obey the law, the agreement was a public affairs victory for both,” according to Coalition for Healthcare Communication Executive Director John Kamp. “In making this move, Pfizer admitted no past wrongdoing but put itself and much of major pharma out in front on a public affairs controversy that could fuel more anti-marketing criticism of the industry.”

Signed June 30 and released on Wednesday, the agreement coincided with two major Washington events that day. First, President Obama announced another in a series of executive actions aimed at opioid abuse, including a rule raising the cap on anti-addiction treatment by individual doctors.  Second, the House and Senate Conference Committee met to complete work on a group of laws intended to limit opioid abuse.

These actions follow compelling evidence that opioid addiction kills. Indeed, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, more than two million Americans are addicted to pain killers and nearly 165,000 people have died from overdoses of prescription narcotics since the year 2000.

Specifically, Pfizer agreed to disclose in marketing materials that narcotics carry a serious risk of addiction even if used properly, to refrain from off-label marketing, and to disclose that there is no good evidence of effectiveness beyond 12 weeks of use. At the same time, Pfizer indirectly responded to a challenge by FDA Commissioner Robert Califf, made during a May review of the largely failed opioid REMS program, for the industry to step up and do more than required by the FDA.

Meanwhile, Chicago continues to pursue a two-year old lawsuit against five other manufacturers alleging misleading marketing of opioids. Pfizer was not named in that suit, and is a small player in the category with only its abuse deterrent formulation Embedia and its Troxyca pending approval at FDA.

“Few doubt, however, that we have seen the end of the public controversy over opioids and their marketing,” Kamp said. “But, this is the type of engagement needed by industry players if we are to stay ahead of the reality and politics of these issues.”