Purdue Pharma, manufacturer of the potent painkiller OxyContin, said it will stop marketing opioid drugs to physicians, in the face of lawsuits blaming the company for helping to cause the opiate epidemic.
Since it was approved by the FDA in late 1995, OxyContin has become the world’s top-selling opioid painkiller, accounting for billions in sales worldwide. Purdue has made over $35 billion in sales from OxyContin since it began marketing the drug in 1996, according to data from consulting firm IQVIA .
OxyContin is a time-release version of oxycodone, designed to work over 12 hours by maintaining a constant level in the bloodstream of users seeking relief from chronic pain. Not long after its introduction, some users discovered they could get a heroin-like high by crushing the pills and snorting or injecting the drug. In 2010, Purdue revised the formulation to make it more difficult to crush, and discontinued the original form of the drug.
Purdue’s statement said it has eliminated more than half its sales staff and will no longer send sales representatives to doctors’ offices to discuss opioid drugs. Its remaining sales staff of about 200 will focus on other medications. “We have restructured and significantly reduced our commercial operation and will no longer be promoting opioids to prescribers,” the Stamford, Conn.-based manufacturer said in a statement.
Purdue said it plans to focus its marketing efforts on Symproic, a drug for treating opioid-induced constipation, and other potential non-opioid products. Purdue also manufactures and sells a newer, hydrocodone painkiller called Hysingla ER.
Andrew Kolodny, M.D., director of opioid policy research at Brandeis University and an advocate for more stringent regulation of opioid drug makers, said Purdue’s decision represents a step forward, but that other opioid drug companies need to take similar action.
“The genie is already out of the bottle,” Kolodny said. “Millions of Americans are now opioid-addicted because the campaign that Purdue and other opioid manufacturers used to increase prescribing worked well. And as the prescribing went up, it led to a severe epidemic of opioid addiction.”
“It is difficult to promote more cautious prescribing to the medical community because opioid manufacturers promote opioid use,” he told the Associated Press.
Kolodny said that opioids are useful for cancer patients who are suffering from severe pain, and for people who only need a pain medication for a few days. But he said that, to boost profits, the companies have promoted them as a treatment for chronic pain, a use which increases addiction risk.
“They are still doing this abroad,” Kolodny added. “They are following the same playbook that they used in the United States.”
Opioids were involved in more than 42,000 overdose deaths in 2016, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Purdue and other drugmakers have been hit with hundreds of lawsuits by states, counties and cities, accusing them of promoting addictive painkillers through deceptive marketing. Lawsuits have alleged Purdue minimized OxyContin’s addiction risk and overstated the benefits of opioids for treating chronic, rather than short-term, pain.
At least 14 states have sued privately-held Purdue. Alabama Attorney General Steve Marshall filed a lawsuit last week accusing Purdue of deceptively marketing prescription opioids. Purdue is also facing a federal investigation by the U.S. Attorney’s Office in Connecticut.
Purdue has denied the allegations in the various lawsuits, responding that its drugs have been approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration and account for only 2 percent of all opioid prescriptions.
In 2007, Purdue and three of its executives pleaded guilty to federal charges tied to the misbranding of OxyContin and agreed to pay $634.5 million to resolve a U.S. Justice Department action. That year, Purdue also reached a $19.5-million settlement with 26 states and the District of Columbia. In 2015, it agreed to pay $24 million to resolve a lawsuit by Kentucky.
One other opioid producer, Endo International Plc, took its Opana ER painkiller off the market last July, after the Food and Drug Administration called for its withdrawal.