Purdue Pharma, a privately-owned corporation, and its narcotic pain-killer, OxyContin, caused the current opioid epidemic. The mainstream media have not provided much coverage of Purdue Pharma’s role in their reporting on the opioid epidemic, which is perhaps the worst health epidemic in US history. The most detailed coverage of the role of Purdue and OxyContin that I am aware of is the article that appeared in the October 30th issue of The New Yorker, “The family that built an empire of pain”. [1] This blog post is largely a summary of that article.

This story is a familiar, but particularly deadly one, of greed, the power of wealthy corporate executives, and the willingness of members of Congress and government to do the bidding of powerful, wealthy interests. Many facets of the story mirror that of the tobacco industry, such as denial of known deadly effects. However, the connection between OxyContin and death is much quicker and clearer.

Purdue Pharma developed OxyContin in 1995. It is oxycodone, a chemical cousin of heroin and twice as powerful a pain-killer as morphine. Purdue’s innovation was a time release formula that allowed a large dose of oxycodone to be taken all at once and whose effect would last for 12 hours (supposedly). This meant that a pill had to be taken only twice a day and that its effect would last through the night, so the patient could get a full night’s sleep. Other narcotic pain-killers come in pills with much smaller doses and must be taken more frequently.

Potent, narcotic pain-killers like OxyContin were, at the time, only used to treat the acute pain of cancer and end-of-life situations. However, Purdue’s marketing worked to broaden the use of OxyContin to less acute pain. It targeted both the public and prescribing doctors. It included hiring doctors, researchers, and other experts to downplay the risks of OxyContin and argue that pain was being under-treated.

Using this strategy, Purdue engaged in one of the most extensive marketing campaigns in the history of the drug industry. It built a salesforce of over 1,000 people who were strongly incentivized through commissions and bonuses to sell lots of OxyContin. Some salespeople made over $100,000 in commissions and in 2001 Purdue paid out over $40 million in bonuses. Within 5 years of its introduction, sales of OxyContin hit $1 billion.

Today, roughly 250 million opioid pain-killer prescriptions are being written each year. In Ohio, a state hard hit by the opioid epidemic, 2.3 million people, about 1 out of every 5 people in the state, received a prescription for an opioid in 2016.

It is estimated that 2.5 million Americans are addicted to opioids and over 300,000 people have died due to the opioid epidemic. An addicted baby is now born every 30 minutes in the US and 10% of newborns in Huntington, West Virginia, are born opioid addicted. According to the American Society of Addiction Medicine, 4 out of every 5 people who use heroin start opioid use with a prescription pain killer.

Purdue has realized about $35 billion in revenue from OxyContin and billions in profits. The Sackler family that owns Purdue is worth an estimated $13 billion.

In my next post, I’ll outline the fraudulent marketing Purdue engaged in to profit from OxyContin and its on-going efforts to block any restrictions on the prescribing of it.

[1]      Keefe, P.R., 10/30/17, The family that built an empire of pain, The New Yorker (https://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2017/10/30/the-family-that-built-an-empire-of-pain)