Seizing on Opioid Crisis, a Drug Maker Lobbies Hard for Its Product

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The New York Times on 06/11/2017 by ABBY GOODNOUGH and KATE ZERNIKE

The ads have been popping up on billboards, buses and subways and in glossy magazines, with portraits of attractive men and women and a simple question in bold letters: What is Vivitrol?

Five years ago, Vivitrol was a treatment for opioid addiction that was struggling to find a market. Now, its sales and profile are rising fast, thanks to its manufacturers’ shrewd use of political connections, and despite scant science to prove the drug’s efficacy.

Last month, the health and human services secretary, Tom Price, praised it as the future of opioid addiction treatment after visiting the company’s plant in Ohio. He set off a furor among substance abuse specialists by criticizing its less expensive and more widely used and rigorously studied competitors, buprenorphine and methadone, as medications that “simply substitute” for illicit drugs.

It was the kind of plug that Vivitrol’s maker, Alkermes, has spent years coaxing, with a deft lobbying strategy that has targeted lawmakers and law enforcement officials. The company has spent millions of dollars on contributions to officials struggling to stem the epidemic of opioid abuse. It has also provided thousands of free doses to encourage the use of Vivitrol in jails and prisons, which have by default become major detox centers.