Purdue Pharma Accused of Knowingly Contributing to Opioid Epidemic
A report by the Justice Department details Purdue Pharma’s awareness of the abuse of OxyContin, the company’s opioid painkiller, early on after its release on the market in 1996. The drug company had previously claimed to be unaware of OxyContin’s appeal to abusers until the early 2000s and even used the claim that the drug was less addictive than other opioid painkillers as its main selling point.
The Justice Department report found:
- Sales representatives had referenced OxyContin’s abuse in their notes when recording visits to medical professionals
- Findings released by international medical publications began to debunk the drug’s safety, which Purdue Pharma did not bring to the Federal Drug Administration’s (FDA) attention, but instead used older findings to show that long-acting opioids did not attract abusers
- The FDA allowed Purdue Pharma to advertise based on the theory that drugs like OxyContin were thought to be less prone to abuse than other opioids. The company instead aggressively marketed the drug with the claim that it was, in fact, safe compared to other opioid painkillers
- Emails were sent to the company’s owners about OxyContin’s abuse
- Purdue Pharma was aware that abusers sought out the drug for its high narcotic levels
- OxyContin was frequently stolen, and the doctors were repeatedly arrested for prescribing it illegally
In 2006, findings led prosecutors to recommend that the company’s top three executives should be indicted on a felony charge. This decision was not supported by the Justice Department, and the case was settled in 2007 by the U.S. Government instead. Purdue Pharma’s executives pleaded guilty to a misdemeanor charge resulting in the payment of millions of dollars in fines and community service, without any accusation of wrongdoing.
The Opioid Epidemic
Many saw the settlement as a loss for those wishing to fix the opioid epidemic and believed that a stronger message needed to be sent to those in the drug industry. After the court decision, prescription opioids continued to pour into the wrong hands, multiplying the growth of the epidemic. To put the case in perspective, the CDC reported that in 2016, greater than 40% of opioid overdose deaths in the United States involved prescription opioids. This number has increased five-fold since 1999. In the face of a continuing opioid epidemic, the case and unearthed evidence against Purdue Pharma remains relevant today.
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