Purdue Pharma, maker of OxyContin and lesser known MS Contin, is facing scrutiny after several recent articles exposed information from a Justice Department investigation into the company. The investigation focused on evidence that showed Purdue’s legal council and executives were aware of the addictive nature of their drugs, including their popularity with drug seekers. Despite knowing their drugs were being misused, the company continued a false marketing campaign that promoted the drug as safer than other opioids because it was less likely to be abused or cause addiction. The company still maintains that they weren’t aware of users abusing their drugs until Maine’s attorney general issued an alert about the drug in 2000, despite federal investigators finding proof that company salespeople were aware as early as 1997, just a year after the release of OxyContin.
The federal investigation ended in 2007 with Purdue Pharma pleading guilty to a felony charge of deceptive advertising and 3 top executives pleading guilty to misdemeanor charges. The company paid $635 million in fines to the government, while the execs did community service and avoided jail time. According to many familiar with the case, Purdue’s executives were given a proverbial hall pass, missing a potentially huge opportunity to throw a roadblock in the now public health crisis that is America’s opioid crisis. Many have called drug company executives behind opioids at the center of the crisis “suited drug pushers,” no better than street drug dealers. Others have said that if they were a minority in street clothes selling these drugs, they’d be locked up. Instead, drug company executives who knowingly market these drugs and force their sales reps to push them on doctors with false claims of safety and less addictive formulations are skating by, continuing to receive large bonuses and stock options while fueling the ongoing drug crisis.
Internal Emails Reveal Awareness of OxyContin’s Street Reputation
Between 1997-1999, prosecutors uncovered nearly 120 mentions of street drug terminology during meetings between Purdue Pharma salespeople and physicians and other health care decision makers (these visits were recorded). OxyContin and MS Contin are frequently misused by abusers by crushing and snorting the pills, allowing the drug to enter the bloodstream faster. In 1999, Purdue Pharma’s general council emailed a Purdue Pharma executive to say that the legal team had seen many references online to OxyContin abuse. Other sales reps have gone on the record to say that they remember visiting doctors whose waiting rooms were filled with obvious drug seekers, while other emails from 1999 show that company executives were swapping stories about drug users and doctors being arrested for OxyContin use and distribution.
States Beginning to Blame Purdue Pharma
In 1995, the FDA approved OxyContin and allowed Purdue Pharma to tout the drug as less addictive and less likely to be abused because of its controlled release formulation (long lasting). Instead of the fast acting release formulations found in other painkillers, OxyContin and MS Contin were less likely to be misused because abusers seeking a quick high would not wait for the effects of Oxycontin to kick in. However, the company failed to acknowledge (and somehow the FDA overlooked) that their long lasting formulation contained more opiates (specifically oxycodone, a synthetic chemical related to heroin) than an immediate release drug. They also failed to acknowledge that by simply grinding up the drug and snorting it, the drug is instantly effective in producing a high.
For many addicts, when drugs such as OxyContin become too expensive or hard to get their hands on, they turn to heroin. In 2016, nearly 50,000 Americans died from an opioid overdose. No longer can we think of drug addicts as just junkies. Over 50% of opioid addictions begin with a legitimately prescribed prescription. Everyone from elderly adults, to ‘soccer moms,’ to teenagers are becoming addicted to opioids. And according to experts, the number of opioid prescriptions began increasing in 1996, the same year OxyContin was released and marketed as a less addictive, harder to abuse painkiller.
The Sackler family, the billionaire owners of Purdue Pharma, are one of the richest families in America. Purdue Pharma’s sales went up dramatically after the release of OxyContin (ultimately reaching $35 billion), earning the family a literal fortune. Now that the opioid crisis has been named a public health crisis by the Trump Administration, loved ones of drug abusers, those whom have been lucky enough to recover, prescribing physicians, and the public as a whole have begun to realize the role that drug makers have played in driving this epidemic. Companies such as Purdue Pharma knowingly lied about the upsides of their drugs, all the while knowing that they were lying to doctors. They trained their salespeople to go out and tell the medical community that the drug was less addictive, which was not what the FDA had approved. Less likely to be abused, maybe, but certainly not less addictive.
Purdue Pharma is now facing at least 14 lawsuits from states, including Alabama, Florida, Nevada, Ohio, Tennessee, and Texas. In the meantime, the number of deaths from opioids continues to rise and OxyContin is still on the market.