Abstract

Context: From 1999 to 2018 the opioid epidemic claimed over 500,000 lives in the United States. Military veterans and older adults were particularly affected; veterans’ deaths attributed to opioid use increased by 65% from 2010 to 2016 while opioid prescriptions for older adults increased nine-fold between 1995 and 2010.

Methods: We reviewed internal pharmaceutical industry documents released in legal discovery to determine how companies targeted these groups to increase prescribing and sales. All documents in the archive were reviewed to identify how opioid manufacturers targeted specific groups to increase sales, and analyze corporate goals and plans identified through internal emails, sales pitches, and presentations.

Findings: These policy and advertising campaigns focused on (a) lobbying policymakers, (b) unbranded campaigns, and (c) promoting opioid use in research and the popular media. Opioid manufacturers claimed that opioids could resolve preexisting concerns identified among military veterans and older adults, and that the use of opioids would improve quality of life. These campaigns were positioned as public health initiatives and efforts to increase disease awareness.

Conclusions: The findings suggest a need for regulatory reform and transparency related to lobbying, advocacy group relationships with industry and pharmaceutical advertising.

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