A public health document that counsels physicians to not overprescribe opioids would seem to be an unlikely candidate for attack. Yet the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s “Guideline for Prescribing Opioids for Chronic Pain,” published in 2016, has attracted constant criticism since its inception. The attacks come from two directions: groups and physicians who receive money from opioid manufacturers and patients with chronic pain.
Until the CDC began drafting the guideline, opioid manufacturers had a firm grip on what the government said about opioids. The Food and Drug Administration parroted industry messaging on chronic pain and rejected mandatory opioid-related training for physicians. Industry lobbyists orchestrated the creation of a 19-member panel at the National Institutes of Health to coordinate pain research. Many of the panelists were heavily beholden to the pharmaceutical industry.
In contrast, the CDC applied strict conflict-of-interest restrictions to the authors of its opioid prescribing guideline. When the impeccably evidence-based draft was released, the pharmaceutical-industry-funded Washington Legal Foundation accused the CDC of failing to follow administrative processes. The Academy of Integrative Pain Management demanded that Congress investigate how the CDC had developed the guideline. A probe by the House Committee on Oversight and Reform, however, found that the CDC had done nothing wrong.
After receiving a barrage of complaints from the industry-friendly NIH panel, the FDA, and industry-funded advocacy groups that disparaged both the drafting process for the guideline and its content, the CDC delayed release of the guideline and opened a 30-day public comment period.
A 2017 analysis of the 158 organizations that submitted comments found that opposition to the guideline was significantly higher among organizations funded by opioid makers, life sciences companies, and those whose funding was unknown than among organizations not funded by industry. Notably, none of the organizations funded by opioid makers disclosed their funding.
That was exposed in a 2018 Senate report. In response to a request from then-Sen. Claire McCaskill (D-Mo.), the top five opioid manufacturers revealed almost $9 million in funding of pain groups between 2012 and 2017. According to the report, the “direct link between corporate donations and the advancement of opioid-friendly messages” is evidenced in the groups’ comments.
Some industry-friendly messages were not subtle. The American Academy of Pain Management, which received more than $1.2 million from opioid manufacturers over six years, was dismissive of opioid-associated deaths, stating “… to limit access to opioids because a small minority of people who use them develop a substance use disorder and/or suffer fatal respiratory depression, may be exacerbating the suffering of a far greater number of people whose pain goes unrelieved.”
In its comment, the American Cancer Society’s Cancer Action Network, which received $168,500 from opioid manufacturers, accused the CDC of a lack of transparency, weak evidence, and “failure to adhere to proper methodology in developing the guideline.” In fact, the guideline used a systematic approach of the best evidence available.
Maintaining pain patients on high doses of opioids is a consistent demand of both industry-funded organizations and pain patients. The American Academy of Pain Medicine (not to be confused with the American Academy of Pain Management), a recipient of $1.2 million from opioid manufacturers over six years, criticized recommendations of daily dosing limits, citing the proposed upper limit given in the guidelines as “an arbitrary dose.” The American Pain Society, recipient of almost $1 million, stated in its comment that “these thresholds are clearly arbitrary and without scientific basis.” And the American Society for Pain Management Nursing, which received more than $300,000, commented that it was “concerning to set a maximum dose.”
The assault continued after the guideline was published. Bob Twillman, executive director of the American Academy of Pain Management, lamented about “the apparent lack of response by CDC to comments submitted by the Academy and numerous other pain management organizations and advocates.” The American Academy of Pain Medicine’s president, Dr. Daniel Carr, claimed that “the CDC guideline makes disproportionately strong recommendations based upon a narrowly selected portion of the available clinical evidence.”
Fresh attacks surfaced in 2019. A letter written to the CDC called for “a bold clarification about the 2016 Guideline — what it says and what it does not say.” Penned by Health Professionals for Patients in Pain (HP3), a group created for the purpose of challenging the guideline, the letter avoided direct attacks on the CDC while bemoaning the “misapplication” of the guideline. The letter’s authors claimed, without evidence, that “draconian and often rapid involuntary dose reductions” implemented by physicians, health care systems, and insurers are driving pain patients to the street to obtain opioids and contributing to patient suicides.
A distinction between street drug users and “legitimate” users of opioids is made by both industry and pain patients. Demonizing “abusers” is an industry tactic. As Richard Sackler, the former chairman and president of Purdue Pharma, the maker of OxyContin, put it in documents disclosed in litigation, “we have to hammer on the abusers in every way possible. They are the culprits and the problem. They are reckless criminals.”
While some of those who signed the HP3 letter have close ties to industry, many of the 300 signatories were well-intentioned health care professionals who did not realize the letter echoed marketing messages. They were used by the organization in much the same way opioid manufacturers use pain patients: as cover for industry efforts to maintain chronic pain as a market for opioids. The HP3 letter, which doesn’t oppose any facts in the CDC guideline and also provides no data supporting its claims, was covered by the New York Times, the Washington Post, Rolling Stone, and other media outlets.
Curiously, when PharmedOut, the Georgetown University Medical Center project that we represent, sent the CDC a letter supporting the guideline signed by seven national organizations and 364 health care providers and allies in May 2019, it received no press coverage.
The formation of HP3 came on the heels of the publication of an article by a conflict-laden group convened by the American Academy of Pain Medicine Foundation. Both the AAPM Foundation and most of the members of what it grandly called a “consensus panel” are funded by opioid manufacturers. The article refutes nothing in the CDC guideline but instead complains about its “misapplication” and — once again — dosing limits: “Daily dosage ceilings, if implemented as hard limits, may promote abrupt dose reductions in patients on high doses, which risks withdrawal symptoms, hyperalgesia [increased sensitivity to pain], and self-medication with more hazardous alternatives.”
Three cancer organizations, the National Comprehensive Cancer Network, the American Society of Clinical Oncology, and the American Society of Hematology, protested that although cancer-related pain was specifically excluded from the guideline, some cancer survivors were being denied opioids even though their chronic pain was related to cancer or cancer treatment.
All of these critics misrepresent the guideline, which never calls for dosage limits, dosage ceilings, forced tapers, fast tapers, or limiting opioids in people living with cancer.
In response to the HP3 letter, CDC Director Robert Redfield merely thanked the organization for its concern and reiterated what the guideline states: that abrupt or involuntary tapering is not what the best evidence recommends. Absurdly, HP3 called Redfield’s letter a “bold clarification.”
Dr. Debbie Dowell, a CDC medical officer and an author of the guideline, also responded to the cancer organizations, acknowledging that previously treated cancer patients were not specifically mentioned in the guideline. Dowell and the two other guideline authors responded to critics in the New England Journal of Medicine in April 2019, again reiterating that “… the guideline does not support stopping opioid use abruptly.”
Their NEJM article does say that misimplementation of the guideline could cause harm — a statement that was immediately spun by Dr. Sally Satel, a co-founder of HP3, as a “forceful and humane variant” of the HP3 letter.
Criticism of the guideline follows a consistent pattern: no evidence provided to refute any statement in the guideline and no evidence provided for the critics’ claims. The eerily similar attacks on the guideline, and the subsequent spinning of the CDC’s we-meant-what-we-said responses to critics as some kind of admission of error or inadequacy, raise the question of whether this is a coordinated attempt by opioid manufacturers to use third parties to undermine, discredit, and smear the guideline.
There’s certainly a credible motive for opioid manufacturers to do this: The CDC guideline is an effective, evidence-based tool that has helped decrease inappropriate and dangerous prescribing of opioids for chronic pain patients.
Here’s the next line of attack on the CDC guideline: a competing report on opioids and pain management by the Department of Health and Human Services Pain Management Best Practices Inter-Agency Task Force. This report opposes many of the CDC’s recommendations and devotes an entire section to criticizing the CDC guideline. The task force includes many nongovernment members financially tied to opioid manufacturers — conflicts comprehensively outlined in a letter by Sen. Ron Wyden (D-Ore.), the ranking member of the Senate Finance Committee.
Letters of protest about the task force’s non-evidence-based draft report included a strongly worded letter from 39 attorneys general stating pointedly, “While this crisis continues, it is incomprehensible that officials would consider moving away from key components of the CDC Guideline …” Nonetheless, the task force overwhelmingly voted to approve a final draft on May 9, 2019. The final report was released on May 30.
A government-funded report that opposes the CDC opioid prescribing guideline is a major coup for opioid manufacturers. The fact that organizations and individuals funded by opioid manufacturers have stepped up their protests of the guideline in recent months is probably not a coincidence.
Opposition from chronic pain patients
Chronic pain patients have also criticized the CDC guideline. Most of the more than 4,000 comments the CDC received during the open comment period were from individuals. Although most chronic pain patients are not being paid by industry, their stories may be used by organizations paid by industry to advocate for doing away with recommended limits on opioid doses or duration.
Pain patients are important to opioid manufacturers because the bulk of opioids are consumed by people living with chronic pain. A crackdown on opioid pill mills has left many pain patients without access to the opioids they depend on, and finding a new physician willing to supply high-dose opioids is difficult. So-called legacy patients who are dependent on opioids certainly need access to these medications. They also need specialized care to taper down from dangerously high doses and multimodal pain treatment. But their advocacy for unlimited access to opioids for themselves may be used to justify new, ongoing opioid prescriptions for chronic pain patients — who will then become future generations of opioid-dependent patients.
As far as real solutions for the opioid epidemic, the authors of the CDC guideline offer one in their NEJM article: “Starting fewer patients on opioid treatment and not escalating to high dosages in the first place will reduce the numbers of patients prescribed high dosages in the long term.”
It is essential that we not abandon patients on long-term opioids — but it is also important that we not create more of them. Opioid manufacturers stand to lose substantial profits with the widespread adoption of the CDC guideline. Public health, however, benefits from the guideline, and attacks on it bear industry’s fingerprints.
Ben Goodwin is a research assistant at PharmedOut, a research and education project at Georgetown University Medical Center. Judy Butler is a research fellow at PharmedOut. Adriane Fugh-Berman, M.D., is the director of PharmedOut and a professor in the department of pharmacology and physiology and the department of family medicine at Georgetown University Medical Center. She also serves as an expert witness at the request of plaintiffs in cases regarding pharmaceutical marketing practices.