HADDONFIELD, N.J. — Pharmaceutical companies that make opioid painkillers have been active in political contributions and lobbying in New Jersey, a state where policymakers have counted curbing deaths from opioids and heroin as a priority but have not so far imposed restrictions on prescription opioids.
The state has some of the top recipients of campaign contributions from companies among legislators across the country. And the companies and their nonprofit allies have a major presence as lobbyists in Trenton.
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 past decade as they worked to influence state and federal policies. 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.
Drug companies say they are committed to solving the problems linked to their painkillers. Purdue Pharma, one of the largest opioid producers by sales, said it does not oppose policies “that improve the way opioids are prescribed” even if they result in lower sales.
Ten New Jersey legislators received at least $25,000 in campaign contributions from 2006 through 2015 from companies that make opioids and other groups that participate in the Pain Care Forum, which includes opioid makers and nonprofit groups.
There were 108 legislative candidates across the country bringing in so much over that period. Only California and Illinois had more such candidates than New Jersey.
In New Jersey, a state where drug companies have offices and headquarters, the reasons for the donations go beyond opioid policy. The major recipients were longtime lawmakers and most had a say in controlling statehouse agendas.
The contributions from the industry and its allies add up to about $1.5 million for state candidates and parties in New Jersey. Just 11 states had a higher percentage of political giving in state races come from the same groups.
Gov. Chris Christie, who has championed measures to deal with addiction as a disease, and Lt. Gov. Kim Guadagno received more than $35,000 in contributions from forum participants.
Groups dedicated to advocating for opioid restrictions didn’t give anything in New Jersey.
About $1.7 million from opioid makers and their allies went to congressional candidates from the state, with U.S. Rep. Frank Pallone leading the way at more than $450,000.
Only three other members of Congress received more over that time period. Pallone was the chair and then he was the ranking Democrat on the health subcommittee where one piece of legislation intended to deal with opioids stalled repeatedly. He said the bill was never flagged as a priority. “It’s possible that this was not brought up by any of the stakeholders or members,” he said.
Pallone helped usher through Congress a bill signed into law earlier in July dealing with addiction and treatment. He said that drug companies were not involved in the discussion surrounding it, and that he has not heard from the industry on opioid policy.
Two of New Jersey’s big recipients among state lawmakers were the Democratic lawmakers who have long been chairmen of their chambers’ health committees.
Groups that participate in the Pain Care Forum contributed $41,750 to Assemblyman Herb Conaway from 2006 through last year and $27,800 to Sen. Joseph Vitale.
Both have expressed concerns about opioid addiction and have moved several measures dealing with addiction treatment and prevention through their committees. But they differ on one emerging area of regulation.
Vitale was a co-sponsor of legislation passed by the Senate this year to restrict first-time opioid prescriptions to seven days.
Conaway, a physician, has not held hearings on the measure in his committee. He said he opposes the concept because he believes doctors should determine health decisions, not lawmakers. “Either you believe that the government can practice medicine or you don’t,” Conaway said.
Lobbyists for opioid manufacturers have been pushing for states to require prescription plans to cover opioids with abuse-deterrent properties.
The drugs are difficult to crush or dissolve, though they are no less addictive. Some experts believe they don’t do much to address the opioid crisis — and may even hurt. Because of patent protections, there are not yet lower-priced generic versions of the formulations.
New Jersey lawmakers adopted legislation last year to require coverage of the drugs, but the measure was vetoed by Gov. Chris Christie, who cited questions about effectiveness and the cost to taxpayers.
Conaway and Vitale were both sponsors of the bill, which Vitale said was suggested by an opioid company lobbyist, though he said he did not recall which one.
DEATHS AND PRESCRIPTIONS
From 2006 through 2015, the last year for which complete national data is available, New Jersey had more than 8,000 people die of drug overdoses. In 2014 alone, the number was more than 1,200.
The majority of those had links to prescription opioids or heroin.
The death rate of 14 people per 100,000 in 2014 was slightly below the national average.
The number of prescriptions per capita in New Jersey in 2014 was 0.55, among the lowest in the country.