How One Sentence Helped Set Off the Opioid Crisis

By on January 4, 2018

From Marketplace:  OxyContin went to market in 1996 with a campaign by Purdue Pharma that suggested a less abusable drug, one that doctors could prescribe for moderate pain, in addition to severe pain.

At the center of the company’s marketing aimed at physicians was a single sentence in OxyContin’s original label:

“Delayed absorption as provided by OxyContin tablets, is believed to reduce the abuse liability of a drug.”

Purdue’s marketing campaign relied on that sentence, which claimed OxyContin was believed to be less likely to be abused than other prescription opioids, according to depositions from various sales reps and physicians that were pitched on the drug. But that claim was not backed up by clinical studies.

Officials from Purdue Pharma, the company behind OxyContin, said in depositions from a 2004 West Virginia lawsuit that the company did not hold clinical trials to show that OxyContin was less likely to be addictive or abused. Purdue sales reps leaned heavily on that messaging of lower abuse potential to push the drug during the first six years following its launch.

Marketplace reviewed hundred of pages of court documents — including some that were recently unsealed — that shed light on the relationship between the Food and Drug Administration, the agency responsible for monitoring and approving prescription drugs, and Purdue between 1995 and 2001.

After launching, Purdue marketed OxyContin aggressively. “Dedicate 70% of your time selling Oxycontin!!!!!!!!!!!” reads a sales strategy memo dated Feb. 27, 2000. “We are selling Oxycontin 70% of the time!!!!!” reads another. “Remember to sell Oxycontin 70% of the time,” reads a less enthusiastic email dated March 1, 2000.

According to a GAO report, Purdue spent approximately six to 12 times more on promotional efforts during OxyContin’s first six years on the market than it had spent on its older product, MS Contin, during its first six years, or than had been spent by Janssen Pharmaceutical Products L.P., for one of OxyContin’s drug competitors, Duragesic.

And its efforts worked: OxyContin became one of the most prescribed narcotics in the country. Purdue has made over $35 billion in sales from OxyContin since it began marketing the drug in 1996, according to data from IQVIA. And OxyContin also became one of the most abused pharmaceutical drugs in U.S. history.

The sentence would remain on OxyContin’s label for more than five years before the FDA removed it and put a “black box warning” on the drug, signifying the drug’s serious or life-threatening risks.

OxyContin, and that highly-marketed sentence, arguably helped push open the floodgates to the country’s opioid epidemic. Between 1999 and 2015 alone, 300,000 people died from overdoses involving OxyContin and other opioids.

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