DENVER — Lawmakers and policy experts say Colorado legislators have been spared intensive lobbying seen in other states by the pharmaceutical industry to oppose restrictions on prescription painkiller sales.
Pharmaceutical companies and related groups spent more than $130,000 in state candidate contributions over the past decade in Colorado, according to the National Institute on Money in State Politics.
Those contributions came from the Pain Care Forum, a national network of drug firms and opioid-friendly groups. Nationally, the forum opposes regulations that would cut the availability or use of prescription opioids, especially painkillers such as OxyContin, Vicodin and fentanyl.
Abuse of those painkillers contributes to the national opioid abuse epidemic that also involves illegal drugs such as heroin. There have been more than 6,900 drug overdose deaths in Colorado since 2006; more than 47,000 people died nationally, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
In Colorado, laws have expanded access to Naloxone, a powerful drug that can stop overdoses, and removed criminal penalties, under certain conditions, for those who might hesitate to report drug overdoses to emergency responders.
A joint investigation by The Associated Press and the Center for Public Integrity found that drugmakers that produce opioid painkillers and allied advocacy groups spent more than $880 million on campaign contributions and lobbying over the last decade as they worked to influence state and federal policies. The groups have an array of political interests that include opioid advocacy, and their spending was eight times that of the gun lobby during the same period. By comparison, groups advocating for limits on opioid prescribing spent about $4 million.
The investigation comes as the number of overdose deaths from prescription painkillers has soared, claiming the lives of 165,000 people in the U.S. since 2000. Reporters analyzed campaign finance and lobbying data from 2006 through 2015, reviewed hundreds of documents and conducted more than 150 interviews. The AP and Center for Public Integrity found that drugmakers and allied groups employed an annual average of 1,350 lobbyists in state capitals around the country and contributed to a total of 7,100 candidates for state-level office.
Democratic state Sen. Irene Aguilar, a physician and backer of the Naloxone law, said she’s not encountered industry opposition to regulating painkiller access. And Lisa Raville, executive director of Denver’s Harm Reduction Action Center, credits the expanding use of Naloxone for saving more than 400 lives in Colorado.
Officers with 22 police agencies in the state carry Naloxone, and drug-dependent inmates in three county jails — Arapahoe, Boulder and Denver — have been trained in its use, Raville said.
Pain Care Forum members donated more than $441,000 between 2006 and 2015 to candidates for and members of Colorado’s congressional delegation.
Republican U.S. Rep. Scott Tipton has co-sponsored legislation to provide more resources to physicians and first responders, improve addiction warning labels for opioid medications and encourage the use of non-opioid painkillers for pain management. He recently held forums on the topic throughout his 3rd Congressional District.
“We haven’t heard very much from the pharmaceutical industry since this issue became a top priority for Congress early in the year,” Tipton said in a statement.
“Most of us assume that if our doctor prescribes us a medication, it’s safe for us to take. Unfortunately, we’ve seen too many kids become addicted to pain medications and turn to substances like heroin when they can no longer get the pills.”