Off-Label Prescribing of Pain Lollipops Turns Deadly

Evelyn Pringle January 24, 2007

The painkilling lollipop, Actiq, is approved to treat chronic pain in cancer patients who are already on an opioid drug. But a recent study by Prime Therapeutics found the drug is being prescribed off-label for unapproved uses nearly 90% of the time.

For those suffering with the agonizing pain of late stage cancer, the painkiller on a stick brings fast relief because it is 80 times more potent than morphine, which makes it a prime drug to watch for law enforcement officials because of its potential for illicit use.

Actiq contains fentanyl, a drug classified as a Schedule II substance by the Drug Enforcement Administration, in the same category as cocaine, opium, methamphetamine and methadone. Schedule II drugs have the highest potential for abuse and overdose.

Fentanyl is also available in a skin patch, and overall, prescriptions for the drug have increased from about 0.5 million in 1994 to 6.95 million in 2005, according to IMS Health, a pharmaceutical industry tracking firm.

Actiq is only FDA approved for the management of pain in cancer patients who are already being treated with opioids because life-threatening conditions can occur at any dose in patients without a built-up tolerance for opioids.

According to a November 5, 1998, talk paper prepared for agency personnel at the time of the product’s approval, the FDA approved Actiq, as a “new product developed specifically for cancer patients with severe pain that breaks through their regular narcotic therapy.”

“Because Actiq may be fatal to children (as well as to adults not already taking opioid narcotics),” the paper said, “FDA approved Actiq under special regulations that restrict distribution as defined in a comprehensive risk management plan.”

The FDA noted that the agency was “extremely concerned that this product be packaged and marketed to minimize the opportunity for diversion, abuse, or access by children.”

However, the DEA, reports that fentanyl is being diverted by pharmacy theft, fraudulent prescriptions and illicit distribution by patients, physicians and pharmacists, and theft at nursing homes and other long-term care facilities. Actiq is typically sold on the street for $20-25 per lollipop and the drug’s street name is “perc-a-pop.”

In 2004, there were an estimated 8,000 emergency-room visits for fentanyl overdoses, according the US Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration. Overdose can result in sudden death through respiratory arrest, cardiac arrest, severe respiratory depression, cardiovascular collapse or severe anaphylactic reaction, according to the agency. As of November 16, 2006, there were 653 deaths confirmed in the US since 2005.

On June 20, 2006, the US Department of Health and Human Service sent a letter to emergency department physicians and personnel to make them aware that the CDC was receiving increasing reports of fentanyl overdoses among illicit drug users in multiple states.

However, the fact that fentanyl cannot be detected with standard opiate screens has caused major problems. Currently, the ER protocol recommended is to assume the presence of fentanyl when a patient has symptoms of narcotic overdose but fails to test positive for heroin.

The Utah based drug maker Anesta Corp, a company acquired by Cephalon in 2000, developed Actiq. Since the Cephalon taker-over in 2000, Actiq has become one of the drugs most often prescribed off-label in the US.

Off-label refers to the use of drugs to treat conditions other than those approved by the FDA and can include prescribing drugs to unapproved populations such as children or the elderly or in higher doses than specified in the drug’s labeling. Drug companies are not allowed to promote a drug for off-label uses, but doctors are permitted to prescribe a drug for any use they believe would be helpful.

The study released this month by Prime Therapeutics, a pharmacy benefit manager, analyzed 95 patient claims from a Midwestern commercial health plan from April through June 2005, and found that only 21 patients had a diagnosis of cancer or AIDS.

In addition, Prime found that only 11 of those 21 patients were taking a long-acting opioid painkiller. Overall, 84 of the 95 Actiq prescriptions, or nearly 90%, were off-label.

The Prime study also found that more than 15% of the prescriptions were for more than the recommended dose of 120 lollipops per month.

Government investigators have been looking into Cephalon’s off-label promotion of Actiq in Connecticut and the Philadelphia area for two years, and the company is also being investigated by the FDA’s Office of Criminal Investigations.

In November 2006, Connecticut Attorney General, Richard Blumenthal, concluded an investigation, which according to the Wall Street Journal, uncovered evidence that suggests Cephalon set high sales quotas for its sales representatives that could not be reached without promoting Actiq off-label.

Of course, just like every other company busted for off-label marketing in recent years, Cephalon claims it does not market Actiq off-label. But internal company documents reveal that sales reps were regularly sent to primary care doctors and specialists, who treat no cancer patients, armed with free coupons for doctors to pass out to patients.

For instance, Dr Stephen Leighton, a general practitioner who says he only has 3 cancer patients at any given time, told the Journal that a Cephalon saleswoman comes by once a month and gives him about 60 to 70 coupons for patients to trade in for six Actiq sticks.

He says the coupons spurred him to try the drug on patients with migraines and back pain and that he prescribes Actiq 15 to 20 times a month to patients who do not have cancer.

As a further indication of off-label promotion by Cephalon’s Actiq sales force, the Journal cites a survey by the research firm ImpactRx, that found visits to non-cancer doctors increased 6-fold from 2002 to 2005.

According to company documents, Cephalon instructed sales reps to ask non-cancer doctors, “Do you have the potential to treat cancer pain?”

And even if the answer was no, they were instructed to give the doctors free coupons to pass out. One document quoted by the Journal, says the coupon program “is a remarkably effective promotional tool” that increased sales by 75 prescriptions a week at little cost.

Cephalon uses many tactics to influence doctor’s prescribing habits. Mr Blumenthal’s investigation found instances where Cephalon flew doctors to company funded seminars where paid speakers promoted the off-label use of Actiq. For instance, the Journal described a September 2003, New York seminar, where one of the topics was “Opioid use in headache.”

At another October 2003, meeting, the Journal reports, a topic was “Use of Actiq in opioid-naive patients,” even though the product label says it should be prescribed only to patients already taking opiate narcotics and can tolerate the drug.

In fact, the Actiq package insert states: “Do Not Take OTFC if you: are not already taking other opioid pain medicines for your constant (around-the-clock) cancer pain.”

It also states: “Never use OTFC for short-term pain from injuries or surgery or pain that will go away in a few days, such as pain from doctor or dentist visits, or any short-lasting pain.”

In 2002, Cephalon began zeroing in on neurologists and a document titled “Actiq in Migraine,” instructed sales reps to pitch Actiq as “an ER on a stick.”

The off-label use of Actiq by opioid naive patients has resulted in devastating consequences for some people. On January 22, 2006, the Free Press reported that the wife of a minister, former schoolteacher, and the mother of three sons, was arrested and charged with involuntary manslaughter because she gave Actiq, her cancer pain medication, to a friend who had a migraine and the friend died of a drug overdose.

On November 3, 2006, the Journal reported a case where a pregnant woman was prescribed Actiq for migraines by a neurologist. By the time of delivery, the woman, who the Journal noted had previously struggled with addictions to milder narcotics, was consuming five lollipops a day.

Upon birth, the infant was cranky and could not sleep and doctors told the woman that her son had become addicted to Actiq and was going through withdrawal.

When approving Actiq in 1998, the FDA set up a risk-management program with guidelines that said sales reps should “promote only to the target audiences,” defined as oncologists, pain specialists, their nurses and office staff.

An provision of the program requires Cephalon to report whether “groups of physicians (such as a particular specialty)” who represent “potential off-label usage greater than 15 percent” are prescribing Actiq. If such a group exists, the FDA says, Cephalon should warn the doctors against the off-label use of the drug.

According to the market research firm, Verispan, for the first half of 2006, two groups of doctors exceeded the 15% quota, anesthesiologists at 29.5%, and physical medicine and rehabilitation specialists at 16%. Oncologists or cancer doctors accounted for only 1% of the prescriptions at retail pharmacies in the US, the Journal reports quoting Verispan.

In 2003, a company auditor, David Brennan, determined that Cephalon was not complying with the 15% rule, but says he was fired when he reported his findings to his superiors, according to a June 2004, wrongful termination lawsuit filed in Camden, NJ.

For Cephalon to act naive about the level of off-label prescribing of Actiq while the cash register is ringing up the sales is laughable. According to the November 3, 2006, report in the Journal, sales of Actiq went from $15 million in 2000, to more than $400 million today.

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