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Mass. lawmaker claims Purdue Pharma corrupted World Health Organization

Congresswoman Katherine Clark was interviewed during a Boston Globe forum in 2017.
Congresswoman Katherine Clark was interviewed during a Boston Globe forum in 2017. (Aram Boghosian for The Boston Globe)

Purdue Pharma, the drug maker under fire for its role in the national opioid crisis, received a new charge Wednesday: that it corrupted the World Health Organization to boost sales of its powerful painkillers.

A new congressional report released Wednesday by Katherine Clark, a Democrat from Massachusetts, and Hal Rogers, a Republican from Kentucky, asserts that Purdue Pharma funded organizations, people, and research to influence the WHO’s opioid prescribing guidelines; these guidelines are considered to be public health best practices.

The lawmakers said the WHO’s guidelines from 2011 and 2012 contained “dangerously misleading and, in some instances, outright false claims about the safety and efficacy of prescription opioids.” These recommendations mirrored Purdue’s marketing strategies to increase prescriptions and expand sales, Clark and Rogers said.

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“The web of influence we uncovered paints a picture of a public health organization that has been corrupted by the opioid industry,” Clark said in a statement. “The WHO appears to be lending the opioid industry its voice and credibility, and as a result, a trusted public health organization is trafficking dangerous misinformation that could lead to a global opioid epidemic.”

In an interview, Clark said the WHO failed to respond to a letter from members of Congress in 2017. The letter sought to warn the organization that Purdue was trying to expand its drug sales internationally through “fraudulent” marketing tactics.

“This struck us as very strange and somewhat disturbing,” Clark said.

The lack of response prompted Clark and Rogers to look into connections between the opioid industry and the World Health Organization, which writes recommendations to improve health around the globe. They found the WHO was repeating “some of the patently false claims that Purdue was peddling,” Clark said.

Clark, a Melrose Democrat, said she was not making any determination as to whether actions outlined in the report were criminal. She and Rogers called on the WHO to rescind its prescribing guidelines and issue a global warning that the 2011 and 2012 guidelines should not be followed.

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Officials at the World Health Organization headquarters in Geneva said their records indicate that their director general did, in fact, reply to Congress’s original letter in May 2017. They said they were reviewing the allegations from Clark and Rogers “point by point” but did not comment further Wednesday.

A Purdue Pharma spokesman said the Connecticut-based company’s relationships with other organizations “are transparent, and any potential conflicts of interest are fully disclosed.”

“Purdue strongly denies the claims in today’s congressional report, which seeks to vilify the company through baseless allegations,” spokesman Bob Josephson said in a statement.

The allegations are the latest against a company that is accused of helping to spawn the opioid epidemic by aggressively marketing powerful painkillers.

Dozens of states are suing Purdue Pharma. A lawsuit from Massachusetts Attorney General Maura Healey accuses Purdue and members of the Sackler family that controls the company of fueling the opioid crisis by using deceptive tactics to sell the drug OxyContin. The Sackler family has said the suit is full of inaccurate and misleading statements.

Last week, five more states announced that they would sue Purdue Pharma and a member of the Sackler family for deceptively pushing painkillers and misrepresenting the drugs’ safety.

Clark and Rogers said Wednesday that Purdue funded “front organizations,” such as the American Pain Society and its global arm, that helped develop the WHO’s prescribing guidelines. The American Pain Society declined to comment.

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The congressional report is based on publicly available information. It states that the WHO published recommendations in 2011 that said “Opioid analgesics, if prescribed in accordance with established dosage regimens, are known to be safe and there is no need to fear accidental death or dependence.”

The following year, the WHO said in another guideline that “there is no maximum dosage of strong opioids, like OxyContin, for children,” according to the report.

“That one is perhaps the most shocking on a visceral level,” Clark told the Globe. “When we have all this research and data that shows dosage does matter.”


Material from the Associated Press and The Washington Post was used in this report. Danny McDonald can be reached at daniel.mcdonald@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @Danny__McDonald. Priyanka Dayal McCluskey can be reached at priyanka.mccluskey@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @priyanka_dayal.