A doctor who was an early advocate for the use of opioids for the treatment chronic pain now says pharmaceutical companies pushing opioids have created an epidemic—one that kills tens of thousands of Americans each year. Of course, he’s doing it to get out of being sued.
About a decade ago, Dr. Russell Portenoy was one of the leading voices supporting the use of opioids. As a professor of medicine who had researched pain extensively, he was perfectly positioned to provide an expert opinion that benefited the drug companies that he says paid him lots of money.
It’s unclear how exactly Portenoy was, as he claims, shilling for opioid makers. But during his pro-Opioid days, in a 2008 Q&A with Health.com, he responded to question about whether opioids should be a “last resort” by saying, “No. Opioids should be considered for every patient with chronic, moderate to severe pain...”
In 1993, Portenoy told the New York Times, “There is a growing literature showing that these drugs can be used for a long time, with few side effects.” As the Wall Street Journal reported, Portenoy has referred to opioids as a“gift from nature” that needs to be destigmatized, due to “opiophobia.”
Portenoy also spoke in videos and at conferences paid for by opioid manufacturers, according to Reuters.
Bloomberg reports that pharmaceutical companies compensated Portenoy during the years when he was speaking out against “opiophobia.”
But Portenoy has since changed his perspective. In 2012, the Wall Street Journal reported that he was having “second thoughts.” The article cited a 2010 video interview in which Portenoy told another doctor, “I gave innumerable lectures in the late 1980s and ‘90s about addiction that weren’t true.”
Now, Portenoy is helping to fight the types of manufacturers that he once aided with his misguided expertise. Last year, cities and counties that were suing Portenoy dropped their lawsuits against him once he agreed to help their cause, according to Reuters and Bloomberg. Following the settlement, Portenoy shared information and testimony for lawsuits against pharmaceutical companies that manufacture opioids.
In a statement provided in court filings detailing what he would say on the witness stand, Portenoy says that the companies only paid him for work that aligned with their interests, according to Reuters.
“The opioid manufacturers should have tempered their positive messaging about opioids with a greater focus on risk, particularly as early signals of opioid risk emerged,” Portenoy reportedly says in the statement, adding that the companies “should have responded as evidence of increasing adverse affects [sic] mounted.”
It seems Portenoy also could have done more when he started seeing evidence of increased adverse effects nearly a decade ago.