‘I DON’T WANT THEIR MONEY’: Trump blames pharmaceutical companies for Opioid epidemic; Refuses campaign donations

ATLANTA — President Donald Trump on Wednesday put the blame for the ongoing opioid crisis on big pharma and vowed to hold the drugmakers accountable.

“We are holding big Pharma accountable,” the president said while speaking at the Rx Drug Abuse and Heroin Summit in Atlanta.

Refusing donation efforts from major pharmaceutical companies, the president said enough is enough. “I don’t want their money,” Trump said. “They have got to do what is right.”

“My administration is also taking aggressive action to reduce oversupply of highly addictive prescription drugs,” Trump said. “The Department of Justice has prosecuted more than 3,000 defendants in cases involving opioids.”

“We have secured a record $6 billion in new funding to combat the opioid crisis … [and] last year we provided $90 million to prevent youth substance abuse,” the president continued. “Following the recommendation of my surgeon general and many others last year, the distribution of the overdose-reducing drug, Naloxone, increased by over 1 million units. Pretty amazing stuff.”

On Tuesday the Trump administration announced it had charged drug distributor Rochester Drug Co-operative Inc and the company’s executives for their role in fueling the nation’s opioid epidemic. In exchange for entering a deferred prosecution agreement, the company has agreed to pay $20 million and admit it ignored thousands of suspicious orders for opioid pain killers.

The company’s former chief executive has been charged with multiple related felonies — the first case of its kind related to the opioid crisis.

President Trump has made waging war against the opioid epidemic a top priority within his administration. In 2017, he declared opioid abuse a national emergency and in October signed into law a legislative package that lawmakers and public health officials said they hope will help to end the crisis.

According to a report released by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, deaths from opioid overdose in the United States jumped 17 percent in 2017 from just one year prior. The report attributed over 49,000 American deaths directly to the use of opioids.

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OPIOID CRISIS: Purdue Pharma pushed OxyContin despite warning signs, says prosecutor

BOSTON (AP) — A member of the family that owns OxyContin maker Purdue Pharma told people at the prescription opioid painkiller’s launch party in the 1990s that it would be “followed by a blizzard of prescriptions that will bury the competition,” according to court documents filed Tuesday.

The details were made public in a case brought by Massachusetts Attorney General Maura Healey that accuses Purdue Pharma, its executives and members of the Sackler family of deceiving patients and doctors about the risks of opioids and pushing prescribers to keep patients on the drug longer. The documents provide information about former Purdue Pharma President Richard Sackler’s role in overseeing sales of OxyContin that hasn’t been public before.

The drug and the closely held Connecticut company that sells it are at the center of a lawsuit in Massachusetts and hundreds of others across the country in which government entities are trying to find the drug industry responsible for an opioid crisis that killed 72,000 Americans in 2017. The Massachusetts litigation is separate from some 1,500 federal lawsuits filed by governments being overseen by a judge in Cleveland.

But the company documents at the heart of the Massachusetts allegations are also part of the evidence exchanged in those cases. While the Massachusetts filing describes their contents, the documents themselves have not been made public, at the company’s request.

According to the filing, Richard Sackler, then senior vice president responsible for sales, told the audience at the launch party to imagine a series of natural disasters: an earthquake, volcanic eruption, hurricane and blizzard.

“The launch of OxyContin Tablets will be followed by a blizzard of prescriptions that will bury the competition. The prescription blizzard will be so deep, dense, and white,” he said, according to the documents.

“Over the next twenty years, the Sacklers made Richard’s boast come true,” lawyers in the attorney general’s office wrote. “They created a manmade disaster. Their blizzard of dangerous prescriptions buried children and parents and grandparents across Massachusetts, and the burials continue,” they wrote.

The complaint says the Sackler family, which includes major donors to museums including the Smithsonian Institution, New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art and the Tate Modern in London, was long aware its drug was dangerous and addictive but pushed more sales anyway.

A memo among family members in 2008 warned of a “dangerous concentration of risk” for the family, the complaint says. Years earlier, Richard Sackler wrote in an email that the company would have to “hammer on the abusers in every way possible,” describing them as “the culprits and the problem.”

Joanne Peterson, who runs a Massachusetts-based support network for the family members of people addicted to drugs, said Sackler’s comments show a “blatant disregard for human life.”

“He certainly hammered them six feet under,” Peterson said. “I’ve been to more funerals than I can count in the last 15 years.”

Purdue Pharma accused the attorney general’s office of cherry-picking from millions of emails and documents to create “biased and inaccurate characterizations” of the company and its executives. The company said in a statement said it will “aggressively defend against these misleading allegations.”

The company also stresses that its drug is approved by federal regulators and prescribed by doctors; that it accounts for a small portion of opioids sold in the U.S.; and that illicit drugs including heroin and street fentanyl are causing most overdose deaths.

“In a rush to vilify a single manufacturer whose medicines represent less than two percent of opioid pain prescriptions rather than doing the hard work of trying to solve a complex public health crisis, the complaint distorts critical facts and cynically conflates prescription opioid medications with illegal heroin and fentanyl,” Purdue Pharma said.

Messages seeking comment were left with a spokeswoman for the Sackler family.

Massachusetts is the first state to personally name the company’s executives in a complaint. It names 16 current and former executives and board members, including CEO Craig Landau, Richard Sackler and other members of the Sackler family.

A suit filed by the New York County of Suffolk also names members of the family. A lawyer who filed that suit, Paul Hanly, said he expects the family to be named in further suits.

Last year, Purdue halted efforts to market OxyContin to doctors.

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Associated Press writers Alanna Durkin Richer and Geoff Mulvihill contributed to the contents of this report.

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OPIOID CRISIS: Feds say heroin, fentanyl remain biggest drug threat to US

WASHINGTON (AP) — Drug overdose deaths hit the highest level ever recorded in the United States last year, with an estimated 200 people dying per day, according to a report by the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration. Most of that was the result of a record number of opioid-related deaths.

Preliminary figures show more than 72,000 people died in 2017 from drug overdoses across the country. About a week ago, U.S. Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar said overdose deaths, while still slowly rising, were beginning to level off, citing figures from late last year and early this year.

The DEA’s National Drug Threat Assessment, which was released Friday, shows that heroin, fentanyl and other opioids continue to be the highest drug threat in the nation. But federal officials are concerned that methamphetamine and cocaine are being seen at much higher levels in areas that haven’t historically been hotspots for those drugs. The DEA is also worried that people are exploiting marijuana legalization to traffic cannabis into the illicit market or to states that don’t have medicinal or recreational-use marijuana laws, according to the report.

The preliminary data also showed 49,060 people died from opioid-related overdose deaths, a rise from the reported 42,249 opioid overdose deaths in 2016.

President Donald Trump has declared the U.S. opioid crisis as a “public health emergency” and just last week pledged to put an “extremely big dent” in the scourge of drug addiction.

Fatal heroin overdoses rose nationwide between 2015 and 2016, with a nearly 25 percent increase in the Northeast and more than 22 percent in the South. Most of the heroin sold in the U.S. is being trafficked from Mexico, and U.S. Customs and Border Protection officers seize the most amount of heroin along the Mexico border, near San Diego, California, the report said.

Fentanyl and other related opioids, which tend to be cheaper and much more potent than heroin, remain one of the biggest concerns for federal drug agents.

The DEA has said China is a main source of fentanyl and other synthetic opioids that have been flooding the U.S. market. China has pushed back against the characterization, and U.S. officials have stressed they work closely with their Chinese counterparts as they try to stem the flow of drugs.

Legislation that Trump signed last week will add treatment options and force the U.S. Postal Service to screen overseas packages for fentanyl.

Azar said in a speech last week that toward the end of 2017 and through the beginning of this year the number of drug overdose deaths “has begun to plateau.” However, he was not indicating that deaths were going down, but that they appear to be rising at a slower rate than previously seen.

Last month, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention released preliminary figures that appear to show a slowdown in overdose deaths from December to March. In that period, the figures show that the pace of the increase over the previous 12 months has slowed from 10 percent to 3 percent, according to the preliminary CDC figures.

Even if a slowdown is underway, no one is questioning the fact that the nation is dealing with the deadliest drug overdose epidemic in its history. While prescription opioid and heroin deaths appear to be leveling off, deaths involving fentanyl, cocaine and methamphetamines are on the rise, according to CDC data.

The DEA’s report also noted that methamphetamine is making its way into communities where the drug normally wasn’t heavily used, the report said. Chronic use of meth, a highly addictive stimulant, can cause paranoia, visual and auditory hallucinations and delusions, studies have shown.

As the government enacted laws that limited access to cold medicines containing pseudoephedrine — the ingredient used to cook meth with other household chemicals — or required the medications to be placed behind pharmacy counters, officials discovered the number of meth labs began to drop.

But the DEA has found the gap is being filled by Mexican and Latin American drug cartels that had primarily dabbled in heroin and cocaine trafficking. A saturated market on the West Coast is now driving the cartels to peddle methamphetamine into the Northeast, using the same routes they use for heroin and other drugs.

Officials also warn that because of more cocaine production in South American countries including Colombia, they expect to see larger shipments at the Mexican border.

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Associated Press writers Ricardo Alonso-Zaldivar and Michael Balsamo contributed to the contents of this report.

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US HEALTH CHIEF: Overdose deaths beginning to level off

WASHINGTON (AP) — The number of U.S. drug overdose deaths has begun to level off after years of relentless increases driven by the opioid epidemic, health secretary Alex Azar said Tuesday, cautioning it’s too soon to declare victory.

“We are so far from the end of the epidemic, but we are perhaps, at the end of the beginning,” Azar said at a health care event sponsored by the Milken Institute think tank.

Confronting the opioid epidemic has been the rare issue uniting Republicans and Democrats in a politically divided nation. A bill providing major funding for treatment was passed under former President Barack Obama. More money followed earlier this year under President Donald Trump. And tomorrow Trump is expected to sign bipartisan legislation passed this month that increases access to treatment, among other steps.

More than 70,000 people died of drug overdoses last year, according to preliminary numbers released by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention this summer— a 10 percent increase from 2016. Health and Human Services — the department Azar heads — is playing a central role in the government’s response.

In his speech Azar suggested that multi-pronged efforts to bring the epidemic under control are paying off. He ticked off statistics showing an increase in treatment with medications such as buprenorphine and naltrexone. There’s solid evidence backing medication-assisted treatment, when used alongside counseling and ongoing support. He also noted much broader access to the overdose-reversing drug naloxone, and a documented decline in the number of people misusing prescription opioids as doctors take greater care in prescribing.

Azar said that toward the end of last year and through the beginning of this year, the number of deaths “has begun to plateau.” Azar was not indicating that deaths are going down, but noting that they appear to be rising at a slower rate than previously seen.

Earlier this month, the CDC released figures — also preliminary — that appear to show a slowdown in overdose deaths in late 2017 and the first three months of this year. From December to March, those figures show that the pace of the increase over the previous 12 months has slowed from 10 percent to 3 percent, according to the preliminary CDC figures.

Despite the slowdown, the nation is still in the midst of the deadliest drug overdose epidemic in its history. Opioids were involved in most of the deaths, killing nearly 48,000 people last year.

While prescription opioid and heroin deaths appear to be leveling off, deaths involving fentanyl, cocaine and methamphetamines are on the rise. Fentanyl is a synthetic opioid much more powerful than heroin, used as an additive in street drugs.

In President Barack Obama’s last year in office, his administration secured a commitment to expand treatment and Congress provided $1 billion in grants to states. Trump declared the opioid epidemic a national emergency. Two major funding bills have passed under his watch. While Trump got headlines with his call for using the death penalty against major drug dealers, his administration has built on the treatment approach that Obama favored.

The Medicaid expansion in Obama’s Affordable Care Act has also played a critical role, paying for low-income adults to go into treatment. A recent Associated Press analysis showed that states that expanded Medicaid are spending their new opioid grant money from Congress more judiciously, going beyond basics like treatment for people in crisis. Trump tried to repeal the Medicaid expansion, but failed.

Advocates for those struggling with addiction are pleased to see that more and more it’s considered a disease and not a sign of moral weakness. But they say the U.S. has a long way to go build what they call “an infrastructure of care,” a system that incorporates prevention, treatment and recovery.

In an interview with The Associated Press this summer, a CDC expert said the overdose death numbers appear to be shifting for the better, but it’s too soon to draw firm conclusions.

Month-to-month data show a leveling off in the number of deaths, said Bob Anderson, a senior statistician with the National Center for Health Statistics. However, those numbers are considered preliminary, since death investigations have not been completed in all cases.

“It appears at this point that we may have reached a peak and we may start to see a decline,” said Anderson. “This reminds me of what we saw with HIV in the ’90s.”

Final numbers for 2018 won’t be available until the end of next year and things could also get worse, not better.

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Associated Press writer Carla K. Johnson contributed to the contents of this report.

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TRUMP TAKES ON BIG PHARMA: President outlines plan to combat America’s opioid epidemic

MANCHESTER, N.H. — President Donald Trump on Monday unveiled his plan to tackle the nation’s ever-growing opioid epidemic. His first targets, he said, are drug dealers and “big pharma”.

Speaking at a college in New Hamshire, a state rocked by opioid-related deaths, the president said securing our border is another important first step in getting drug abuse under control.

“Ninety percent of the heroin in America comes from our southern border, where eventually the Democrats will agree with us and we’ll build the wall to keep the damn drugs out,” Trump told a crowd, who responded with cheers.

Trump called for stricter penalties for drug dealers, up to and including the death penalty for those convicted of selling drugs illegally.

“Some of these drug dealers will kill thousands of people during their lifetimes,” the president said. This is about winning a very, very tough problem, and if we don’t get tough on these dealers, it’s not going to happen.”

Trump pointed out that leaders of other nations have told him that they do not have a serious drug problem because they have “zero tolerance for drug dealers.”

“Take a look at some of these countries where they don’t play games,” he said. “They don’t have a drug problem. We have court cases that last 10 years and then they get out at the end.”

“We have to be tough. We have to be smart. We have to change the laws and we’re working on that,” the president vowed. “The ultimate penalty has to be the death penalty,” he said.

A White House proposal on the issue leaked to Politico shows Trump is already working toward implementation of the death penalty for drug dealers in “certain cases where opioid, including Fentanyl-related, drug dealing and trafficking are directly responsible for death.”

In response to the president’s proposal, the Justice Department cited 18 USC 3591(b) and 21 USC 848(e), declaring “under current law, the federal death penalty is available for several limited drug-related offenses—for example through violations of the ‘drug kingpin’ provisions”.

The president met the Justice Department’s reply with calls for new legislation that would expand death penalty eligible drug-related crimes on the federal level. Further, President Trump called on Congress to pass laws lowering the drug-possession threshold to trigger mandatory minimum sentences.

Turning his aim toward drug companies, Trump said big pharma is as equally responsible for the drug epidemic as the dealers who illegally sell their product.

“Our Department of Justice is looking very seriously into bringing major litigation against some of these drug companies. We’ll bring it at a federal level,” he said.

Trump, who campaigned heavily on addressing the drug crisis as part of his efforts to “make America great again” last year declared the opioid crisis a national health emergency.

“I don’t want to leave at the end of seven years and have this problem,” Trump told the crowd.

The president also said he would support alloting federal dollards toward research into developing a vaccine for opioid addiction.

“It’s central,” Dr. David Rosenbloom, a professor of public health at Boston University, told CNBC. “You need research dollars for the basic research, and you need significant research for clinical trials.”

But experts in the addiction field warn that, even if developed, addiction preventing vaccines are no magical cure.

“This is not any kind of magic bullet,” Dr. John Franklin, the chief of addictions in the department of psychiatry and behavioral sciences at Northwestern, told CNBC. “This is another tool to give opioid users a chance.”

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STATE OF WITHDRAWL: Trump’s pick for drug czar removes himself from consideration after bombshell report

WASHINGTON, D.C. — Rep. Tom Marino, the president’s top pick for drug czar, removed himself from the list of Trump nominees Tuesday after a report surfaced suggesting the Pennsylvania Republican is soft on enforcing drug laws.

“Rep. Tom Marino has informed me that he is withdrawing his name from consideration as drug czar. Tom is a fine man and a great Congressman!” the president tweeted Tuesday after being notified of Marino’s decision.

Marino’s withdrawal comes on the heels of a joint report by CBS’ 60 Minutes and The Washington Post (https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/post-politics/wp/2017/10/17/trump-says-drug-czar-nominee-tom-marino-is-withdrawing-after-washington-post60-minutes-investigation/?utm_term=.caace5cf1488) which claimed Marino had worked to water down legislation and weaken the Drug Enforcement Administration’s ability to go after high-level drug dealers.

The report alleged that Marino, who was the chief advocate for a 2016 bill at the center of the investigation, used legislation to disarm the Drug Enforcement Administration during the height of the crisis, thus weakening the DEA’s control over opioid drug distributors.

Both Democrats and Republicans had called on the president to remove Marino from consideration in light of the WaPo report, but as of Monday President Trump had failed to make a formal decision on the matter.

“He was a very early supporter of mine. … He’s a great guy,” Trump said during a press conference on Monday adding, “We’re going to look into the report. We’re going to take it very seriously. … We’re going to be looking into Tom.”

During a Tuesday morning interview on Fox News Radio with host Brian Kilmeade,
Trump praised Marino and said he understood his decision to remove himself from consideration.

“He was very gracious,” Trump said. “He didn’t want to even have the perception of a conflict of interest with drug companies or insurance companies.”

“There was a couple of articles having to do with him and drug companies,” Trump said. “And I will tell you he felt compelled. He feels strong about the opioid problem and the drug problem, which is a worldwide problem, it’s a problem that we have. And Tom Marino said, ‘I’ll take a pass, I have no choice, I’ll really take a pass, I want to do it.’ He was very gracious, I have to say that.”

West Virginia Sen. Joe Manchin, who led Democrats on Monday in opposing Marino’s nomination, praised Trump over the announcement.

“Thanks for recognizing we need a drug czar who has seen the devastating effects of the problem,” Manchin said in a tweet to the president.

Sen. Orrin Hatch, (R)-Utah, who had worked with Marino to co-sponsor the bill, defended the legislation on Monday, calling allegations that either of the two had “conspired” with drug companies “utterly ridiculous.”

I’m “no patsy” of the drug industry, said Hatch.

Calls for statement from Rep. Marino were met with “no comment”.

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