Christie boosts drug makers while heading opioid panel
Industry promotes therapies to fight its own products
USA TODAY WASHINGTON When New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie wanted to convene some of the nation’s top pharmaceutical companies at a meeting in Trenton last month, state economic development officials extended the invitation to CEOs with the promise of “a good networking opportunity.”
In a ballroom in a state office building, 17 pharmaceutical executives met with Trump White House officials, members of President Donald Trump’s opioid commission, and federal regulators who oversee the drug industry, who pitched what they called a “public-private partnership” to address the opioid crisis.
But the meeting wasn’t set up by the White House or public health officials. Emails obtained by USA TODAY show that many of the invitations came from Choose New Jersey, a nonprofit economic development agency run by a longtime Christie friend and political aide.
A week later, the New Jersey governor invited many of those same executives to testify before the opioid commission — which Christie chairs — to promote their own drugs and therapies to treat opioid use disorder or to provide alternatives to the powerful painkillers in the first place.
Those records highlight the unique position Christie holds as Trump’s point man on the opioids: In addition to leading the national response to the crisis, he’s also the governor of a state that calls itself “the medicine chest of the world.”
The industry supports 150,000 jobs in New Jersey, says trade group BioNJ, and 17 of the world’s top 20 pharmaceutical companies have major operations in the Garden State. Pharmaceutical executives helped bankroll his campaigns for governor, and his work as chairman of the Republican Governor’s Association. Christie sees his dual role not as a conflict, but an asset.
“I think that the fact that I have these relationships helps, given what you saw at that meeting,” Christie said in an interview with the USA TODAY Network. “Because they know I’m a guy who cares deeply about this issue, and I’m someone they have a long history with, they all came.”
But the relationship has some industry critics questioning whether pharmaceutical executives have too much influence on the deliberations of the opioid commission.
“We should not be looking to industry to solve a problem they created. The answer to a pill problem is not always new pills,” said Dr. Adriane FughBerman, a pharmacology professor at Georgetown University and director of PharmedOut, a watchdog group that follows pharmaceutical industry marketing efforts.
The commission has had three meetings so far, and taken testimony at two of them. The first featured a cross-section of nine experts and advocates; the second featured 11 pharmaceutical company representatives. Christie says he’s also considered about 12,000 written comments.
Many of those comments come from people suffering from pain and addiction, but also from drug companies.
Christie also acknowledged two previously undisclosed meetings with drug companies as chairman of the opioid commission: One was with ADAPT Pharma, the Irish company that makes Narcan, the leading treatment to counteract opioid overdoses. Christie said he was particularly interested in which formulations were more effective against which drugs.
The second was with Alkermes, the makers of Vivitrol, an opioid withdrawal drug that competes with methadone and buprenorphine, to learn about how the medication-assisted therapies work differently.
Both meetings, he said, were at his invitation and were with Patrick Kennedy, a Democratic former congressman who also sits on the commission.