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Sen. Kamala Harris scrutinizes opioid treatment drug manufacturer

Emily Cadei, McClatchy Washington Bureau on

Published in Political News

WASHINGTON -- She may not have the same legal tools she had as California's attorney general, but Democrat Kamala Harris is aiming to use her perch on the Senate's chief oversight committee and her rising national profile to shine a light on the marketing practices of Big Pharma.

Specifically, Harris is demanding a ream of documents from drug manufacturer Alkermes about the way it has promoted Vivitrol, a drug used to treat opioid addiction.

The New York Times and NPR reported over the summer that Alkermes has seized on the country's struggles to contain the opioid epidemic to aggressively market Vivitrol to an unusual set of customers: law enforcement officials and lawmakers. The tactic is "nearly unheard of for a pharmaceutical company," the NPR story notes.

In the process, "cheaper and more thoroughly studied treatments appear to have been stigmatized and marginalized," Harris wrote in a letter Monday to CEO Richard Pops, which was obtained by McClatchy.

Specifically, the reporting suggests Alkermes has sought to paint buprenorphine and methadone, two less expensive alternative treatments for opioid addiction known as "opioid agonists," as risky in and of themselves.

"Alkermes' current advertising campaign claims that Vivitrol is the only 'non-addictive' treatment for opioid addiction. This is a deliberate attempt to discourage use of opioid agonist therapy in favor of Vivitrol, despite the fact that the evidence for effectiveness of buprenorphine and methadone maintenance is robust," Dr. Anna Lembke, chief of the Stanford Addiction Medicine Dual Diagnosis Clinic, said in an email. "Alkermes is playing on fears and biases against opioid agonist treatment, which are longstanding, despite the overwhelming evidence for their effectiveness," Lembke added.

In her letter to Pops, Harris asks the company to provide a list of documents, including:

-- A list of judicial officials and drug courts to which Alkermes has assigned sales representatives.

-- A list all jails or prisons at which Alkermes has provided free Vivitrol shots.

-- Copies of any educational materials provided to law enforcement personnel or judges.

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