Last week, the New York Times published a confidential Justice Department report showing drug maker Purdue Pharma knew about “significant” OxyContin abuse in the painkiller’s earliest years on the market, even though the company claimed it didn’t know about widespread misuse until long after it was was put on the market.
Following a four-year investigation, the DOJ found that Purdue received reports that the pills were “being crushed and snorted; stolen from pharmacies; and that some doctors were being charged with selling prescriptions.” Internal notes from the company show it knew about Oxy being sold and snorted on the streets as early as 1997; the drug came on the market in 1996.
DOJ prosecutors wrote in the 2006 memo that Purdue continued to market Oxy as “less prone to abuse and addiction than other prescription opioids” while knowing about the reports of abuse. They also recommended that three top Purdue executives be “indicted on felony charges, including conspiracy to defraud the United States.” However, DOJ officials under the George W. Bush administration did not support the move and settled with the pharmaceutical company in 2007. Purdue and three of its executives pleaded guilty to federal charges of misbranding drugs, and were ordered to pay a $635 million fine.
Prosecutors discovered that, in 117 internal notes by company sales reps documenting their visits to doctors or other medical professionals from 1997 through 1999, the sales people used the words “street value,” “crush,” or “snort” The 120-page report also quoted emails showing that Purdue Pharma’s owners, members of the wealthy Sackler family, were sent reports about abuse of OxyContin and another Purdue opioid, MS Contin.
“We have in fact picked up references to abuse of our opioid products on the internet,” Purdue Pharma’s general counsel, Howard R. Udell, wrote in early 1999 to another company official. That same year, prosecutors said, company officials learned of a call to a pharmacy describing “OxyContin as the hottest thing on the street — forget Vicodin.”
Udell and other company executives testified in Congress and elsewhere that the drug maker did not learn about OxyContin’s growing abuse until early 2000, when the United States attorney in Maine issued an alert. Purdue Pharma still maintains that position..
With more than 200,000 deaths nationwide from prescription opioid overdoses, Purdue Pharma and other manufacturers and distributors are facing a number of lawsuits filed by states and cities across the country.
Purdue patented the drug’s novel, extended-release formulation, contending that it made OxyContin nonaddictive, and safe to prescribe for long-term use. The company had little-to-no evidence to support that claim. But the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) allowed the drugmaker to say that OxyContin’s slow release was “believed to reduce” its appeal to drug abusers, based on the theory that they favored a more immediate high.
In the study, which was published in The Journal of the Canadian Medical Association, researchers from the University of British Columbia in Vancouver interviewed local drug dealers and abusers to find out what legal drugs sold for on the black market. They found that MS Contin commanded the highest price of any prescription opioid, with a 30-milligram tablet that cost $1 at a pharmacy selling for up to $40 on the street.
In early 2000, a Purdue Pharma executive sent an email to then-CEO Michael Friedman, recounting problems he had seen while overseeing sales of the morphine-based painkiller MS Contin in the Midwest.
“I received this kind of news on MS Contin, all the time and from everywhere,” vice-president of marketing Mark Alfonso wrote. “Some pharmacies would not even stock MS Contin for fear they would be robbed. In Wisconsin, Minnesota and Oklahoma, we had physicians indicted for prescribing too much MS Contin.”