OxyContin: The Opiate That Helped Start the Epidemic

On December 12, 1995, a Stamford Connecticut-based pharmaceutical company, called Purdue Pharma, received the Food and Drug Administration’s approval to distribute the opioid OxyContin. The opioid hit the market in 1996 and generated $45 million in sales for the manufacturer. By 2000, profits increased by 2,000 percent to a whopping $1.1 billion. By the time the opioid accounted for 30 percent of the painkiller market, within 10 years, the manufacturer reached $3.1 billion.

OxyContin wasn’t the first opioid on the market. Synthetic painkillers like Percocet, Vicodin and Fentanyl had already been in competition, but it was baffling as to why this pill became so popular within a short period of time.

Purdue Pharma had an interesting way of marketing their product. It was discovered that the pharmaceutical company collected data on doctors and focused their marketing efforts on those prescribing the most pain medication. Purdue Pharma was on a mission to distinguish their OxyContin from other painkiller competitors by marketing their pill as being less addictive due to their patented time-release formula. Purdue Pharma released several pieces of marketing material asserting this point and suggested that addiction was “less than 1 percent.” With the FDA by their side, OxyContin was conveyed as the safer alternative.

In 1996, the FDA approved an 80mg version. In 2000, they approved a 160mg pill. According to the FDA’s “History of OxyContin: Labeling and Risk Management Program,” the higher dosages were for people who were considered opioid tolerant.

Due to the higher dosages, the pills became popular street drugs. Drug users would crush, sniff or inject the pill for a potent high that lasted up to or over eight hours.

The Los Angeles Times reported in 2002, Purdue Pharma knew doctors were prescribing the painkiller recklessly but didn’t do anything about it. A study found that 87 percent of users were taking OxyContin more frequently than every 12 hours because it wore off between five to eight hours. The newspaper opened another investigation, approximately six years later, and discovered Purdue Pharma collected extensive evidence suggesting illegal trafficking of OxyContin and, in many cases, didn’t share their finding with law enforcement or cut the supply of pills.

The pharmaceutical has been riddled with lawsuits. One civil lawsuit, in particular, came from Commonwealth of Kentucky v. Purdue Pharma in 2007. Kentucky was one of the states hit hardest with 484 OxyContin overdoses in 2006. The civil lawsuit included Medicaid fraud, wrongful enrichment, false advertising and nine other claims. Kentucky demanded $1 billion in compensation for law enforcement efforts, drug abuse programs and the state’s pharmaceutical assistance programs.

In 2010, while Kentucky and other states had civil lawsuits in action, the FDA forced Purdue Pharma to reformulate their pills after discovering the highly addictive nature of the painkiller.

Purdue Pharma had previously resolved cases in 49 other states, but never admitted to any liability. “For more than a decade we’ve implemented industry-leading programs to reduce the abuse and overuse of prescription opioids, including our 2010 reformulation of OxyContin with abuse-deterrent properties,” said Philip Strassburger, Purdue Pharma’s general counsel.

In December 2015, Purdue Pharma agreed to pay Kentucky $24 million to settle allegations of misleading the public.

From 1999 to 2010, the sale of prescription painkillers quadrupled. At the exact same time, overdoses also quadrupled. These statistics run parallel to Purdue Pharma’s marketing efforts that climaxed in the early 2000s.

Many have argued that the epidemic has slowed, but others think it has simply evolved. Although 18.1 percent of painkiller users get them from their doctor, 55 percent of users get these powerful pills from their friends or relatives. OxyContin and other painkillers are still easily accessible regardless of regulations.

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