Jan. 17 (UPI) -- Heavy marketing of prescription opioid drugs to doctors was linked to high death rates in an analysis of recent data published Friday.
Between 2013 and 2016, pharmaceutical companies spent nearly $40 million in marketing to nearly 68,000 physicians in 2,208 counties throughout the United States, according to findings published Friday in JAMA Network Open.
Additionally, overdose deaths climbed 18 percent for every three payments to physicians per 100,000 people in a county.
Despite the decline in the rate of opioids prescribed since 2010, prescribing rates are still three times higher than in 1999. Counties in Kentucky, Tennessee and West Virginia have some of the highest opioid prescribing and highest opioid-related overdose rates in the country.
The National Institutes of Health estimates that more than 72,000 Americans died of drug overdoses in 2017.
According to researchers, about one-third of opioid overdose deaths involve prescription opioids -- and most people who misuse prescription opioids have prescriptions.
"In the midst of the opioid epidemic, it is critical to address what may be contributing to people misusing and overdosing on prescription opioids, and our study indicates that, across the country, marketing to doctors may strongly influence these outcomes," Scott Hadland, a researcher at the Grayken Center for Addiction at the Boston Medical Center and study author, said in a statement.
Researchers analyzed data based on marketing by the total dollar amount paid to physicians, the number of payments made by the pharmaceutical industry and how many physicians received any marketing money.
Much of the marketing included pharmaceutical companies paying for physicians' meals, consulting fees, travel costs, honoraria and speaking fees.
According to the new study, the mean overdose mortality rate reached 6.5 per 100,000 person-years throughout counties in the United States. The value of average marketing per county came in at $732 a month.
"We already know that one in 12 U.S. physicians received marketing for opioids, and this proportion was even higher for family physicians, among whom one in five received opioid marketing," Hadland said. "Our findings suggest that direct-to-physician opioid marketing may run counter to national efforts to reduce overdose deaths, and that policymakers should consider limits on marketing as part of a robust, evidence-based response to the U.S. overdose crisis."
Along with prescription opioid drugs, many of the deaths investigated by the researchers also involved heroin and fentanyl.
"As previous studies have shown, the strongest effect that marketing has on opioid prescribing rates is based on the number of marketing interactions with doctors, not the money spent," Hadland said. "Given the widespread nature of direct-to-physician marketing by opioid pharmaceutical companies, including paying for meals, we must take a hard look at these practices and provide guidance on how they can be better regulated in order to save lives."