Opioid abuse a growing problem in Alaska

  • By Rachel D'oro
  • Tuesday, September 20, 2016 10:21pm
  • News

ANCHORAGE — Abuse of opioids has only recently entered the public consciousness as a crisis in Alaska even though it’s been a growing problem for the past decade.

“It’s been much more visible over the past couple of years,” said Jay Butler, the state’s chief medical officer. “Of course, some of that is driven by the national trends. That helps people feel more comfortable about talking about these issues.”

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. The groups have an array of political interests that include opioid advocacy, and their spending was eight times that of the gun lobby during the same period.

By comparison, groups advocating for limits on opioid prescribing spent about $4 million.

Alaska is far behind scores of Lower 48 states, at least in terms of lobbying and campaign contributions from drug makers and industry supporters.

The AP investigation comes as the number of overdose deaths from prescription pain killers 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.

The AP and Center for Public Integrity found that drugmakers and allied groups employed an annual average of 1,350 lobbyists in state capitals around the country and contributed to a total of 7,100 candidates for state-level office.

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.

One caveat: Organizations included in the investigation are involved in a number of unrelated issues, and it’s impossible to say how much of their spending has been related to influencing opioid laws.

Here’s a look at Alaska’s place in the analysis:

A decade ago, 76 people died in drug overdoses in Alaska. In 2014, the latest year for which the data is available, there were 124 deaths — a 63 percent increase. That gave Alaska a drug death rate of 16.8 per 100,000 — compared with the national rate of 14.8 that year. While Alaska has a death rate higher than the national average, it’s still far below such high-death states that year as West Virginia, with a 33.9 rate, and New Mexico, with a 26.2 rate.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has indicated that prescription opioids and heroin account for most drug deaths. Butler said Alaska also has seen an influx of more heroin with a higher level of purity. And more recently, the powerful painkiller fentanyl was found in heroin seized from the Yup’ik Eskimo village of Quinhagak, where four people overdosed on heroin in August, including one woman who died.

While deaths are going up, the number of opioid prescriptions has fallen in Alaska — a similar downward trend across much of the nation. Per capita, Alaska’s opioid prescription rate is among the lowest in the nation.

In 2013 more than 468,000 prescriptions were issued in the state, compared with about 420,600 in 2015. That’s equivalent to slightly more than one prescription per every two residents.

Members of the Pain Care Forum — a loose coalition of drug manufacturers and nonprofit groups supported by industry money — contributed a total of $40,000 to senior U.S. Sen. Lisa Murkowski, R-Alaska, a longtime member of the Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee, between 2008 and 2012, and 2015.

Murkowski spokeswoman Karina Petersen said the senator supports efforts to not only treat but prevent opioid addiction, including co-sponsoring legislation passed by Congress this year that, among other things, creates a national monitoring program aimed at reducing prescription drug abuse.

“On the official side, we don’t follow what contributions are made to Senator Murkowski’s campaign, nor do we take them into account when taking official action,” Petersen wrote in an email.

Forum member contributions to former Democratic Sen. Mark Begich, who was a member of the Veterans Affairs Committee, totaled more than $52,000 between 2008 and 2009, and between 2012 and 2014, when he lost his re-election bid to Alaska Republican Dan Sullivan.

Begich did not immediately respond to a request for comment on the contributions. Sullivan has received a total of $6,200 from forum members.

Contributions to Alaska’s sole representative in the U.S. House, Rep. Don Young, totaled $3,000 between 2006 and 2009.

Pain Care Forum members were far tighter with contributions to just a few state candidates, giving just $1,070 between 2006 and 2013. That included $670 to the campaign of now Gov. Bill Walker and Lt. Gov. Byron Mallott, and another $100 in Walker’s 2010 bid for the office.

In 2006, just $300 went to the campaign of former Gov. Sarah Palin and her lieutenant governor, Sean Parnell.

Alaska has averaged six state lobbyists paid by forum members each year for the past decade. Between 2012 and 2015, lobbying expenditures totaled nearly $524,000, according to the National Institute on Money in State Politics.

Follow Rachel D’Oro at https://twitter.com/rdoro.

More in News

Soldotna High School senior Josiah Burton testifies in opposition to the proposed cut of Kenai Peninsula Borough School District theater technicians while audience members look on during a board of education meeting on Monday, March 6, 2023 in Soldotna, Alaska. (Ashlyn O’Hara/Peninsula Clarion)
School board finance group reviews expenditures ahead of upcoming budget cycle

As the Kenai Peninsula Borough School District prepares to grapple with another… Continue reading

Members of the Kenai/Soldotna Fish and Game Advisory Committee raise hands to vote in favor of a proposal during a meeting at Cook Inlet Aquaculture Association in Kenai, Alaska, on Monday, Nov. 20, 2023. (Jake Dye/Peninsula Clarion)
Silver salmon, personal use fishing discussed by advisory committee

The group set their recommendations on a variety of proposals to the State Board of Fisheries

Hoses pump water along Patrick Drive to help mitigate flooding near Kalifornsky Beach Road on Friday, July 21, 2023, near Kenai, Alaska. (Ashlyn O’Hara/Peninsula Clarion)
Borough spent almost $78k responding to flood events during disaster declaration

Most of the funds were spend in the northwest area of Kalifornsky Beach Road

The National Weather Service’s map shows a winter weather advisory, in orange, effective for much of the eastern Kenai Peninsula. (Screenshot)
Heavy snow, blowing winds forecast for Turnagain Pass on Wednesday

Snow accumulations of up to 16 inches are expected

The Kenai Courthouse is seen on Monday, July 3, 2023, in Kenai, Alaska. (Ashlyn O’Hara/Peninsula Clarion)
Grand jury adds charges in October killing of Homer woman

The indictment was delivered on Nov. 8

Alaska State Troopers logo.
Anchorage resident arrested in Nikiski after troopers investigate reports of stolen vehicle

Troopers responded to a residential address in Nikiski around 11:30 a.m. after being notified by Sirius XM that a stolen vehicle was there

Santa Claus greets Hudson Reinhardt during Christmas Comes to Kenai festivities at the Kenai Chamber of Commerce and Visitor Center in Kenai, Alaska, on Friday, Nov. 24, 2023. (Jake Dye/Peninsula Clarion)
Getting into the holiday spirit

Christmas arrives in Kenai with fireworks, Santa and a lot of rain

Kinley Ferguson tells Santa Claus what she wants for Christmas during Christmas in the Park festivities on Saturday, Dec. 3, 2022, at Soldotna Creek Park in Soldotna, Alaska. (Jake Dye/Peninsula Clarion)
Creating a winter wonderland

Christmas in the Park to bring Santa, sleigh rides, fireworks on Saturday

Flowers bloom at Soldotna City Hall on Wednesday, June 24, 2021 in Soldotna, Alaska. (Ashlyn O’Hara/Peninsula Clarion)
Soldotna to repair failed wastewater pipe

The pipe to be repaired discharges treated effluent into the Kenai River

Most Read