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Study links opioid drug-maker gifts to doctors to overdose deaths

Ten months ago, federal prosecutors outlined a case against five New York doctors. The indictment accused the physicians of participating in a bribery and kickback scheme that was designed to increase sales of Subsys, a spray form of the opioid fentanyl.

A few days ago, the New York Times reported on a new study that offers evidence that the areas where doctors are targeted for marketing gifts and payments by opioid manufacturers are also the areas with higher than average opioid deaths.

The study published in JAMA Network Open says the opioid manufacturing industry spent about $40 million promoting its opioid products to doctors from 2013 to 2015. Marketing gifts and payments included consulting fees, meals and trips. The researchers say that in counties where the marketing was frequent, prescription opioid overdose deaths were 18 percent higher.

It should be noted that while studies of this type can be interesting, their conclusions are generalized and cannot be applied to individual cases.

Said Dr. John Cullen, president of the American Academy of Family Physicians, "A limitation of the study, as acknowledged by the authors, is the many unknown variables that prevent drawing a direct causal link between pharmaceutical marketing and opioid-related deaths."

He said that the organization is well aware of the impact of the opioid epidemic, and is working to fight it, but that "we must protect the physician's ability to provide adequate pain management."

The study's authors, from New York University School of Medicine and Boston Medical Center, acknowledge that they could not differentiate between overdoses deaths caused by prescription opioids versus overdose deaths caused by illicitly acquired opioids.

Physicians under investigation in matters involving pain-killing medications should speak with a skilled attorney experienced in license defense before talking to investigators.

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