Christie boosts drug mak­ers while head­ing opi­oid panel

In­dus­try pro­motes ther­a­pies to fight its own prod­ucts

The Commercial Appeal - - Front Page -

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.

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