The head of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has declared the overdoses from opioid drugs like 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 doesn't highlight is the money behind that message.
The foundation collected nearly 90 percent of its $5 million 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 Dr. 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.
In stories this year, ProPublica has detailed the close entanglements between pharmaceutical companies and groups representing doctors. Reporting showed that the positions of societies representing specialty physicians often reflected the views of their major funders .
The American Pain Foundation falls into a different category -- health advocacy. It harnesses the power of patient stories to sway politicians, state medical boards, judges and government health regulators, emphasizing that it represents grassroots voices.
ProPublica's review found that the foundation's guides for patients, journalists and policymakers play down the risks associated with opioids and exaggerate their benefits. Some of the foundation's materials on the drugs include statements that are misleading or based on scant or disputed research.
The group has intervened in court cases in ways that appear to counter its stated mission. In one example, it sided with Purdue Pharma, its longtime funder , to block a 2001 class-action case filed by Ohio patients who had become addicted to or dependent on the company's blockbuster painkiller, OxyContin.
And the foundation mobilizes patients to send "outraged" email messages to news organizations that run stories it believes reinforce "stigmas and stereotypes" about the risks of pain medication.
The group's board includes some patients but also doctors who are paid to speak and consult for drug companies, a researcher whose clinic has relied on their funding for survival and a public-relations executive whose firm represents them.
Last year, one board member was the lead author of a study about a Cephalon drug . Cephalon sponsored the study, and its employees were co-authors. The study found that the drug, Fentora, was "generally safe and well-tolerated" in non-cancer patients even though it is only approved for severe cancer pain.
Dr. Andrew Kolodny, a New York psychiatrist who heads Physicians for Responsible Opioid Prescribing, said the foundation has built credibility with politicians and regulators who may not be aware of the extensive industry ties.
"I don't think they realize that in many ways the American Pain Foundation is a front for opioid manufacturers," Kolodny said.
Rowe, however, said it can be hard for critics to understand the mindset of patients whose pain is so severe they are willing to risk serious side effects to gain relief.
"Policymakers can go to bed at night and say, 'Well, I protected society,'" by restricting access to a risky painkiller," he said. "The person with pain or the person with cancer could say, 'You know, I'm sorry. I'm living with this, and I want to take this chance.'"
'The System Is Awash in Opioids'
In the late 1980s and early '90s, physicians who cared for pain patients excitedly embraced opioids as a low-risk treatment for suffering.
Derived from the opium plant, opioids reduce the perception of pain by attaching to opioid receptors in the brain, spinal cord and elsewhere in the body.
"We bought into this idea that opioids would be effective and that the risk of addiction would be low," said Dr. Jane Ballantyne, a longtime pain expert and a professor at the University of Washington.
But along the way, pain doctors split. Some, like Ballantyne, began decrying the increasingly widespread use of opioids and questioned whether the drugs worked. Others, like the foundation's leaders, said the drugs were being unfairly maligned, making pain patients feel like criminals and discouraging doctors from prescribing them.
Despite the debate, sales of the drugs have skyrocketed.
Last year, $8.5 billion worth of narcotic painkillers were sold in the United States, according to the prescription-tracking company IMS Health. Enough of the drugs were prescribed last year to "medicate every American adult around the clock for a month," the CDC said.
"Right now, the system is awash in opioids, dangerous drugs that got people hooked and keep them hooked," said CDC Director Thomas Frieden in a recent news briefing.
Some of the pills have become household names: Vicodin, Percocet, OxyContin. On its own, OxyContin, an extended-release painkiller, accounted for $3.1 billion in sales last year, up from $752 million in 2006, according to IMS Health.
There's little dispute that many people endure chronic pain. In the past, many doctors, especially those providing primary care, ignored pain as a condition that warranted its own treatment.
A report from the prestigious Institute of Medicine last summer said 116 million American adults suffer from chronic pain. The report also cited legal and regulatory barriers to opioids, especially for cancer and end-of-life pain. The findings are lauded by the foundation as underscoring the concern about undertreatment.
In an email to ProPublica, however, the report's chairman said the study panel took a broad look at chronic pain and didn't examine the use of opioids with "rigor or detail."
"It does seem like the issue of opioid use is worthy of a separate study," wrote Dr. Philip A. Pizzo, dean of Stanford University's medical school.
Guides Offer Reassurance About Pain Drugs
The American Pain Foundation's website offers publications for patients, policymakers and even journalists. Each depicts the benefits of opioids, and each is underwritten by the makers of those drugs.
Its patient guide, paid for by four companies , discusses several treatments for pain. It says such pain relievers as aspirin, ibuprofen and naproxen commonly cause gastrointestinal bleeding or ulcers, delay blood clotting, decrease kidney function and may increase the risk of stroke or heart attack. And it warns patients to use these pain pills at the lowest dose and stop them unless clearly needed .
The side effects of opioids, on the other hand, are minor, and most go away "after a few days," the foundation's guide says. The underuse of opioids, it says, "has been responsible for much unnecessary suffering."
Patients, it says, shouldn't worry if they need more of a drug. They are not developing an addiction.
"Many times when a person needs a larger dose of a drug," the guide says, "it's because their pain is worse or the problem causing their pain has changed."
Another guide, written for journalists and supported by Alpharma Pharmaceuticals, likewise is reassuring. It notes in at least five places that the risk of opioid addiction is low, and it references a 1996 article in Scientific American , saying fewer than 1 percent of children treated with opioids become addicted.
But the cited article does not include this statistic or deal with addiction in children.
"I would much prefer that they would put in there something that could be substantiated by a real reference," said Dr. Leonard Paulozzi, a CDC medical epidemiologist specializing in drug overdoses. "That would present a much less rosy picture of the risk."
A recent report by the National Institute on Drug Abuse said estimates of addiction among chronic pain patients using opioids range from 3 percent to as high as 40 percent .
One Foundation-related publication this year provided a case study of how physicians could convince patients that the drugs are not addictive.
In an e-newsletter paid for by a drug company, Florida family physician Louis Kuritzky summed up the advice he'd give to a patient with knee pain : "We have learned that when patients have important pain problems like you do, they can use such medications successfully over the long term without any major risk of addiction."
This advice is contradicted by a respected medical review organization that looked at research on the use of opioids for osteoarthritis of the knee or hip . The Cochrane Collaboration concluded that "the small to moderate" benefits of opioids "are outweighed by large increases in the risk of adverse events" and the drugs should not be routinely used.
Kuritzky said he had not read the Cochrane review but believes that the downside of opioids is "very, very small" based on his experience with his patients.
"There are many issues where you will see wise men and women differ about the right answer to a difficult and important question," he said.
Rowe, the foundation's chief executive, acknowledged that some of its publications need updating. He pointed to additional materials on the group's new PainSAFE website , which include a broader description of the risks. But the foundation continues to post outdated guides and even refers to them in newer materials.
And while the PainSAFE site discusses the risks more completely, it is based on the assumption that the drugs have proven to work well for chronic pain sufferers. The site says studies have shown opioids improve daily function and quality of life for such patients . In contrast, a new guide by New York City's Department of Health and Mental Hygiene says there is "insufficient evidence" that "pain relief is sustained or function improves."
Dr. Lewis Nelson, chairman of the federal Food and Drug Administration's Drug Safety and Risk Management Advisory Committee, said he believes the foundation's guides can't help but be biased.
"If you're taking drug-company money and you're working as an advocacy group for patients, I think by definition you're biased," said Nelson, an emergency room physician in New York. "I take everything they say with a grain of salt."
Fighting in Court for Painkiller Access
The foundation doesn't just offer advice about opioids; it takes its arguments into court.
In 2005, it filed a friend-of-the-court brief in the U.S. Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals in support of Dr. William Hurwitz, a pain doctor in Virginia who had been convicted on 50 counts of drug trafficking.
The doctor had been accused of prescribing a single patient as many as 1,600 Roxicodone pain pills in one day. Hurwitz allegedly had prescribed that patient alone more than 500,000 pills between July 1999 and October 2002.
The pain foundation and its allies argued that the jury instructions in the case didn't distinguish between criminal behavior and mistakes by a well-intentioned physician. "It is not drug dealing to prescribe opioids to patients that might be 'suspected' addicts or substance abusers," the foundation and two other groups wrote in a brief .
Rowe said the foundation intervened in the case on principle, fearing the drugs would be "demonized." The appeals court threw out the conviction, but Hurwitz was retried and convicted on 16 counts of trafficking.
Years earlier, the foundation opposed several pain patients who had sued Purdue Pharma in an Ohio county court for allegedly obscuring the risks of OxyContin.
The foundation filed a friend-of-the-court brief backing Purdue , arguing that the health of all pain patients would be harmed if the class-action lawsuit went forward because doctors would become fearful of prescribing opioids.
Ohio was plagued by "opiophobia" according to a brief co-authored by the foundation and two smaller pain nonprofits. "Consequently many, if not most, of the state's residents had been deprived of adequate pain care," it said.
In a separate federal case in 2007, Purdue pleaded guilty to misbranding OxyContin "in an effort to mislead and defraud physicians and consumers," according to a statement from prosecutors. The company agreed to pay $600 million in penalties. Three top officials also pleaded guilty to misdemeanors and agreed to pay $34.5 million.
Two months after the conviction, however, then-foundation chairman Dr. James Campbell praised Purdue in a statement to a U.S. Senate committee .
"I believe Purdue and its management deserve recognition for their contribution to the welfare of these many patients," Campbell wrote. Prosecuting the executives, he wrote, sent a "chilling message to those who dare to develop high-risk drugs for important diseases."
Campbell mentioned his foundation role in his remarks. Rowe said the former board chairman was not speaking for the group, and stressed that strict rules keep funders from influencing its work. The foundation is working to diversify its support, Rowe and others said.
Nevertheless, the group often finds itself on the same side as drugmakers in state and federal debates over how to regulate painkillers.
In 2009, the FDA suggested changes to address concerns about the risks of long-acting opioids , recommending that physicians and pharmacists be certified to ensure they had been educated about those risks.
Although foundation officials blame poorly educated physicians for the growing problems with opioids, the officials joined with other pain groups and drugmakers to assail the plan .
The FDA backed off key elements of its proposal last year and said doctors could voluntarily attend courses about the risks.
That move was criticized by an FDA advisory committee, which voted overwhelmingly that it wasn't enough to stem the tide of overdose deaths.
"When you look at 14,000 people dying on an annual basis, that's more than we've lost in Iraq and Afghanistan since 2001 in active duty," Dr. Mori Krantz, an advisory panel member and director of the prevention center at the University of Colorado in Denver, said during the meeting .
Little Evidence That Narcotics Work for Chronic Pain
Missing from the American Pain Foundation literature is any suggestion that the drugs don't work for many chronic pain sufferers.
Recent editorials in medical journals and scientific reviews cite little evidence of long-term benefit.
Most of the clinical trials for opioids to treat chronic pain "were small, lasted less than 16 weeks and excluded patients with a history of substance abuse, psychiatric illness and depression, who are at increased risk for opioid misuse and abuse," three physicians wrote in an editorial this year in the Archives of Internal Medicine .
"How can a therapy be considered if there's no evidence that it works and there's evidence of lots of side effects?" Dr. Mitchell Katz, one of the authors and director of the Los Angeles County Department of Health Services, said in an interview.
Rowe said he knows plenty of patients for whom the drugs work, "and their lives are together because they use them."
The foundation board's chairman and president, Dr. Scott Fishman, is stepping down at the end of the month. In a statement to ProPublica , he said his views have evolved and that he now believes opioids are both overused and addictive. But he defended the group.
"I have not always agreed with APF positions and have had disagreements with some APF leaders and patient advocates about many issues in pain management, including the appropriate place of chronic opioid therapy," wrote Fishman, chief of pain medicine at University of California, Davis.
"Nonetheless, I have always believed that patients in pain in the United States need strong patient advocacy, which APF has offered."