An international network of companies tied to Purdue Pharma in the US has been fined by an Australian drug regulator for “misleading, imbalanced, and otherwise inaccurate” advertising of opioid painkiller Targin to health professionals.
The Therapeutic Goods Administration (TGA) said in a statement last week that it fined Mundipharma—a group of companies owned by the Sackler family, which also owns Purdue—AU$302,400 ($209,369) and served the company with 24 infringement notices. The notices were tied to a single sentence that appeared in promotional materials for Targin, which the TGA said “appeared to positively encourage the prescription of Targin medicines for chronic non-cancer pain.”
The sentence, which Mundipharma said has since been removed from its promotional materials, read: “Opioids should be used as part of multimodal pain management plan and in an ongoing trial, as they are associated with potential harms, including unsanctioned use, addiction and overdose.”
The TGA said it was concerned this sentence could be construed as encouraging health professionals to prescribe opioids as “a core component of the multi-modal management of chronic non-cancer pain,” even though the evidence for opioids’ efficacy in treating this type of pain is generally thought to be weak, and evidence for the addictive potential of long-term opioid treatment is strong. The regulator argued that “the decision to prescribe opioids should be approached with significant caution.”
The fine comes at a time when Purdue faces lawsuits in the US alleging it used deceptive marketing tactics that downplayed the addictiveness and exaggerated the effectiveness of opioids in treating chronic non-cancer pain. A Quartz investigation for the documentary, How to Sell Drugs (Legally), found that Mundipharma deployed similar marketing techniques to sell opioids overseas.
Under a potential settlement to the opioid lawsuits, the Sacklers could be made to give up ownership of Purdue and sell Mundipharma.
Opioid consumption has surged in Australia in recent years, and an Associated Press investigation showed that Mundipharma has already come under fire for its marketing of opioids to health professionals, including from Australian addiction specialist Simon Holliday, who first brought the issue to the TGA.
A spokesperson for Mundipharma said the sentence that the TGA found fault with was intended to “proactively and voluntarily urge caution when healthcare professionals chose to prescribe an opioid,” adding that Mundipharma “respectfully disagrees” with the regulator’s decision but “respects the important role of the TGA” in pharma regulation.
“Every day in Australia, nearly 150 hospitalizations and 14 emergency department admissions involve opioid harm,” the TGA statement said, “and three people die from drug-induced deaths involving opioid use.”