February 26, 2019

Senator Hassan Confronts Top Janssen Pharmaceuticals Executive on Company’s Role in Helping Fuel Opioid Crisis

Senator Also Addresses Skyrocketing Cost of Prescription Drugs: “Breakthroughs Aren’t Breakthroughs if People Can’t Afford the Medicine that Produces the Breakthrough”

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To watch Senator Hassan’s questioning, click here

WASHINGTON – Senator Maggie Hassan today confronted top Janssen Pharmaceuticals executive Jennifer Taubert for her company’s role in helping fuel the opioid crisis during a Senate Finance Committee hearing on prescription drug costs. Janssen is the pharmaceuticals division of Johnson & Johnson.

Senator Hassan began her questioning by addressing the skyrocketing cost of prescription drugs, noting “breakthroughs aren’t breakthroughs if people can’t afford the medicine that produces the breakthrough.” The Senator added that the system “is so convoluted and so nontransparent that my constituents can’t figure out what the price of their medication is going to be day-to-day and despite a wonderful staff, I feel like I need a PhD in prescription drug pricing to understand how the heck this industry works. And that should not be the way we proceed in this country to get these breakthroughs to people.”

Senator Hassan then asked Jennifer Taubert, Executive Vice President of Janssen Pharmaceuticals, about the company’s promotion of the unproven and dubious concept of “pseudoaddiction,” an idea advanced by the pharmaceutical industry claiming that when certain patients present signs of addiction it is because they were prescribed insufficient doses of opioids, and that instead of providing addiction treatment, doctors should increase their opioid doses. Ms. Taubert claimed to be unware of the term.  

“Janssen promoted this made-up concept of pseudoaddiction on a website it approved and funded was called ‘Let’s Talk Pain’” Senator Hassan said. “Since then, your company has repeatedly said that your actions quote ‘in the marketing and promotion of our opioid pain medicines was appropriate and responsible.’ So Ms. Taubert, how can you possibly claim that promoting the theory of pseudoaddiction – that doctors should prescribe more opioids to patients showing signs of addiction – was appropriate and responsible?”

After Ms. Taubert failed to accept responsibility for her company’s actions, saying that “opioids represent less than one percent of our products,” Senator Hassan responded, “Alright let me stop you right there because my constituents don't care about the percentage, they care about the behavior to maximize sales in an industry.”

The Senator added, “My constituents are dying. Nearly 500 people in New Hampshire died from overdoses last year and nearly 500 the year before that. And companies like Janssen and Purdue Pharma fueled this epidemic. Employing deceptive and truly unconscionable marketing tactics, despite the known risks, so you could sell more drugs to maximize your profits and now you are refusing to take responsibility for your company’s role in this crisis.”

The Senator concluded her questioning, “[…] right now it is hard for me to take the industry's goal here as promoting good health seriously when its behavior to maximize sales of opioids created an epidemic.”

Senator Hassan has been a leader in the Senate on holding the pharmaceutical industry accountable. The Senator has cosponsored comprehensive legislation to lower drug costs, including by permitting the safe importation of prescription drugs from places like Canada and allowing Medicare to negotiate the price of prescription drugs. The Senator has also worked to hold the pharmaceutical industry accountable for its role in helping fuel the opioid crisis (60 Minutes covered the Senator’s efforts here). The Senator successfully worked to include a measure she authored in the bipartisan SUPPORT Act that the President signed into law to crack down on bad actors in the pharmaceutical industry by strengthening the Drug Enforcement Administration’s (DEA) system for addressing suspicious orders of opioid-based prescription drugs from drug distributors and increasing penalties for bad actors in the pharmaceutical industry that fail to report suspicious orders to the DEA.

See full transcript of Senator Hassan’s questioning below:

Senator Hassan: Well thank you Mr. Chair, and I want to thank you and ranking member Wyden for this hearing today, I want to thank all the witnesses for being here today as well. A couple of observations; one is that breakthroughs aren’t breakthroughs if people can’t afford the medicine that produces the breakthrough. Secondly is, you have all mentioned the importance of a viable, predictable system – it has to be a viable and predictable system for patients. And right now it is so convoluted and so nontransparent that my constituents can’t figure out what the price of their medication is going to be day-to-day and despite a wonderful staff, I feel like I need a PhD in prescription drug pricing to understand how the heck this industry works. And that should not be the way we proceed in this country to get these breakthroughs to people.

But I want to talk about a slightly different aspect of your industry right now, we’ve been talking about drug pricing which is one part of how drug companies make money, the other part is how you maximize sales. So Ms. Taubert I’d like to focus on how your company maximized sales for a particular class of drugs – opioids. Can you define for me please, Ms. Taubert, what pseudoaddiction is?

Jennifer Taubert: I’m sorry, I’m not sure, I’m not familiar with that term.

Hassan: Well let me fill you in then, pseudoaddiction is an unproven and dubious concept that asserts that certain patients present signs of addiction because they were prescribed insufficient doses of opioids.  Those peddling this pseudoaddiction concept say that instead of providing addiction treatment when somebody shows the signs of addiction, the doctor should increase their opioid doses. Even one of the original doctors who pushed this theory now admits it was, his quote “an excuse to give patients more” drugs.

Ms. Taubert, Janssen promoted this made-up concept of pseudoaddiction on a website it approved and funded that was called “Let’s Talk Pain.” Since then, your company has repeatedly said that your actions quote ‘in the marketing and promotion of our opioid pain medicines was appropriate and responsible.’ So Ms. Taubert, how can you possibly claim that promoting the theory of pseudoaddiction – that doctors should prescribe more opioids to patients showing signs of addiction – was appropriate and responsible?

Taubert:  Senator, thank you so much for that question. You know, abuse and addiction, particularly opioid abuse and addiction are very serious public health concerns. And we recognize the impact on the American public

Hassan: So then the question is - and again I like everybody else I only got a few minutes here - the question is why are you looking back at what your company did, promoting pseudoaddiction - an unproved theory that was just used to maximize sales of a deadly drug - why is that something that you are calling appropriate and responsible?

Taubert: So I'm sorry, I'm not familiar with the term. What I can say is on behalf of our company, opioids represent less than one percent of our products -

Hassan: Alright let me stop you right there because my constituents don't care about the percentage, they care about the behavior to maximize sales in an industry. Do you know how many Americans died from drug overdoses in 2017?

Taubert: Far too many.

Hassan: 70, 237. In one year more Americans died from drug overdoses than died fighting the entire war in Vietnam and the vast majority of those overdose deaths - about 50,000 - were from opioids. My constituents are dying. Nearly 500 people in New Hampshire died from overdoses last year and nearly 500 the year before that. And companies like Janssen and Purdue Pharma fueled this epidemic. Employing deceptive and truly unconscionable marketing tactics, despite the known risks, so you could sell more drugs to maximize your profits and now you are refusing to take responsibility for your company’s role in this crisis. So one more time, do you truly think that Janssen's opioid marketing practices were appropriate and responsible? Or will you finally take responsibility for your company’s role in helping create this crisis that is killing more than a hundred Americans every day?

Taubert: Everything that I have seen leads me to conclusively believe that everything that we have done with our products when we promoted opioid products, which we stopped marketing a long time ago, was very appropriate and responsible. However, that being said, we do believe that we have a leadership position to take in helping with this. And so we are doing a number of things, in terms of mothers and babies, and physician and patient education, to help stop because we recognize we all play a part in trying to help this because we realize -

Hassan: Our time is done. But right now it is hard for me to take the industry's goal here as promoting good health seriously when its behavior to maximize sales of opioids created an epidemic. 

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