National Briefs / Painkiller panel conflict

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WASHINGTON -- A scientific panel that shaped the federal government's policy for testing the safety and effectiveness of painkillers was funded by major pharmaceutical companies that paid hundreds of thousands of dollars for the chance to affect the thinking of the Food and Drug Administration, according to hundreds of emails obtained by a public records request.

The emails show that the companies paid as much as $25,000 to attend any given meeting of the panel, which had been set up by two academics to provide advice to the FDA on how to weigh the evidence from clinical trials. A leading FDA official later called the group "an essential collaborative effort."

Patient advocacy groups said the electronic communications suggest that the regulators had become too close to the companies trying to crack into the $9 billion painkiller market in the United States. FDA officials who regulate painkillers sat on the steering committee of the panel, which met in private, and co-wrote papers with employees of pharmaceutical companies.

The FDA has been criticized for failing to take precautions that might have averted the epidemic of addiction to prescription drugs including Oxycontin and other opioids.

FDA officials did not benefit financially from their participation in the meetings, the agency said. But two later went on to work as pharmaceutical consultants and more than this, critics said, the emails portray an agency that, by allowing itself to get caught up in a panel that seemed to promise influence for money, had blurred the line between the regulators and the regulated.

Exactly how to judge when a painkiller is effective has been a long-running problem for drug companies that believe that some of their products are effective but that their benefits are missed in standard clinical drug trials.

One goal of the group was to design clinical trials that would illuminate the benefits of new drugs that might be missed in standard tests, avoiding what the academics called "false negatives."

Gas prices drop 14 cents

CAMARILLO, Calif. -- The average U.S. price of a gallon of gasoline has dropped 14 cents over the past two weeks.

The Lundberg Survey of fuel prices released Sunday says the price of a gallon of regular is $3.38. Midgrade costs an average of $3.58 a gallon, and premium is $3.71.

Of the cities surveyed in the Lower 48 states, St. Louis has the nation's lowest average price for gas at $3.01. San Francisco has the highest at $3.88.

Cruise ships head to La.

NEW ORLEANS -- Two Carnival Cruise Line ships delayed by former Tropical Storm Karen, which dissipated Sunday, were due in New Orleans within a half-hour of each other Sunday, a day earlier than previously expected.

Carnival has worked to restore passengers' confidence since the Carnival Triumph broke down in February, stranding passengers for five days in the Gulf.

New shipwreck found

DULUTH, Minn. -- The group that found a sunken freighter near Marquette, Mich., this spring has found a second one in Lake Superior.

The Duluth News Tribune reports that the shipwreck hunters confirmed the location of Scotiadoc last month. It's in more than 850 feet of water near Thunder Bay, Ontario, possibly making it the deepest shipwreck ever found in the Great Lakes.

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