Purdue Pharma, the maker of OxyContin, knew its product was hooking people and leading to overdoses, but suppressed that knowledge in the sake of higher profits.
In fact, the company was aware that painkiller addicts were crushing their pills into dust and snorting them, that pharmacies were getting robbed for their OxyContin supply, and that doctors were selling prescriptions to OxyContin to make easy money, but nonetheless continued to market the drug as “less addictive” than other prescription painkillers like Hydrocodone (Vicodin).
The New York Times examined a 2006 investigation by the Department of Justice (then overseen by Attorney General Alberto Gonzalez) in which prosecutors recommended felony indictments for Purdue Pharma executives for conspiracy to defraud the United States in relation to its suppression of information about the addictive properties of OxyContin, which came onto the market in 1996.
Company officials knew as early as 1999 that their product was dangerously addictive. That year, Purdue Pharma general counsel Howard Udell wrote in an email to another company official that Purdue “picked up references to abuse of our opioid products on the internet.” That same year, Purdue learned of a call to a pharmacy referring to OxyContin as “the hottest thing on the street.”
However, the George W. Bush administration refused to file formal charges, opting instead to settle the case out of court in 2007. Several top officials at the company pleaded guilty to a charge of “misbranding” the drug, and the company paid roughly $634 million in fines with each of the defendants agreeing to a period of community service, according to the Times.
The “misbranding” stemmed from Purdue Pharma’s assertion that their drug was “believed to reduce” addiction rates based on the fact that it took longer to take effect. The Food and Drug Administration allowed Purdue to make that claim when the agency approved the drug for commercial use in 1995, despite the claim being a simple hypothesis not based on any clinical trials that painkiller addicts would prefer a quicker-acting hit, as Vicodin provided.
Purdue called this theory a “principal selling tool” for the company’s marketing strategy. However, as the Times reported, company salesmen were told by their managers to oversell the unproven hypothesis of lower addictive properties to healthcare providers as a means of driving company profits:
The drugmaker admitted in 2007, when confronted with evidence gathered by prosecutors, that it trained sales representative[sic] to tell doctors that OxyContin was less addictive and prone to abuse than competing opioids, claims beyond the one approved by the F.D.A. … Mark Ross, a former company sales representative, testified during a grand jury appearance that after he warned a manager that one doctor’s office was filled with drug seekers he was told his job was to sell drugs, not to determine if a “doctor was a drug pusher,” according to a summary of his testimony in the report.
The executives who pleaded guilty to misbranding all reported directly to the Sackler family, which owns Purdue Pharma. As of 2016, Forbes reported that the Sacklers’ net worth was approximately $13 billion. The family uses a sizable chunk of that wealth to fund innocuously named nonprofits (like the Pain Care Forum and the Power of Pain Foundation) to deter efforts to regulate opioid-based painkiller prescriptions.
Richard Sackler, who is a director at Purdue, was reportedly told in 1999 about online chat room conversations in which addicts described crushing up OxyContin pills and snorting them to get high. Purdue founders Raymond and Mortimer Sackler were also aware of MS Contin — which preceded OxyContin — being abused by painkiller addicts. However, Gonzalez’s DOJ did not recommend any charges against any member of the Sackler family.
In some states, opioid-based painkiller prescriptions outnumber adults. A 2014 report from the Bowling Green Daily News found that there were 128 opiate painkiller prescriptions for every 100 adults in Kentucky. The state’s attorney general filed a lawsuit against Purdue Pharma that same year, blaming the company for not accurately describing the addictive properties of its chief product. Purdue settled for $24 million in damages in 2015.
According to data from the Centers for Disease Control (CDC), abuse of prescription painkillers like OxyContin led to more than 200,000 deaths between 1999 and 2016. Nearly 80 percent of heroin users say they started out on opioid-based painkillers before graduating to heroin, according to the National Institute on Drug Abuse.
Tom Cahill is a contributor for Grit Post who covers political and economic news. He lives in Bend, Oregon. Send him an email at tom DOT v DOT cahill AT gmail DOT com.