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THE OPIOID CRISIS AND THE UNSCRUPULOUS CONDUCT OF PURDUE PHARMA 

 

OxyContin, first introduced by Purdue Pharma in 1996, was aggressively marketed to physicians, nurses and pharmacists as a superior, longer-lasting, and safer treatment for cancer-related chronic pain as well as other pain, and as a treatment for “non- malignant pain” (long-lasting pain with no identified precursor).  The marketing campaign was intense even though randomized double-blind studies found that OxyContin was no more effective than opioids already in use for the treatment of pain.  Purdue’s intense promotion of the drug proved to be very lucrative for the company. From the time of its introduction to 2000, a mere four years, sales of OxyContin grew from $48 million to over $1 billion.

Purdue Pharma claimed that the risk of addictionto the drug was minimal, maintaining that less than one percent of those that used the drug got addicted. The company even cited studies to confirm this “fact.” We know now that OxyContin is highly addictive; Purdue knew it then. OxyContin, zealously promoted and widely available, was a “gateway” drug to theopioid crisesthat continues to grip the country. Yet, Purdue Pharma claimed for years that it was unaware of OxyContin’s addictive properties. That was an outright lie.

A United States Justice Department investigation exposed conclusive evidence that Purdue was well aware of OxyContin’s addiction risks as early as 1997. Yet, when Purdue’s chief medical officer was called to testify before the House Appropriations subcommittee in 2001 concerning the then evident risks of OxyContin addiction abuse, he claimed that Purdue was unaware of the problem for the first four years it was on the market.

Well, the problem with that is the fact that the Justice Department investigation found documents that the company’s executives had received reports of OxyContin abuse: that the pills were being stolen from pharmacies and that they were being crushed and snorted.  Even more egregious, Purdue learned of a Canadian medical journal study published in 1998 that established that OxyContin was already being widely abused on the black market. Purdue chose to ignore the study and did not mention it to the F.D.A. or its sales representatives who were out pushing the drug to doctors. Purdue simply decided to conceal the information they knew about OxyContin and continued to aggressively promote the drug as less susceptible to addiction and abuse. Essentially, Purdue was a legal drug pusher, and a lethal one at that. An OxyContin overdose can, and often does, result in death.

In 2006, after the four-year investigation, the Justice Department recommended that three of the top Purdue executives be indicted on felony charges. But the Bush administration was not eager to pursue criminal charges against these executives, so in 2007 the Justice Department settled the case.

The settlement was a slap on the hand. The three executives pleaded guilty to misdemeanor charges of “misbranding” OxyContin and were sentenced to perform community service and pay fines. Purdue was also ordered to pay a fine of $600 million. That amount may sound like a lot, but Purdue makes billions, and get this: OxyContin was still its biggest money maker until recently. It was only this year that the company, under increasing criticism, decided to stop promoting OxyContin, although it is still manufactured and available to doctors that request it.

Informed observers believe that the government, in its failure to pursue meaningful criminal charges against Purdue and its executives, may lost the opportunity to thwart the opioid crises. OxyContin was the leader in opioid abuse back when the crises was just starting to take off and if the government had taken the drug manufacturer on, perhaps it would have been a shot across the bow to the other pharmaceutical companies who were themselves also marketing addictive opioids that became the source of the opioid abuse crisis.

Orange County criminal defense attorney William Weinberg offers a complimentary consultation regarding your criminal matter. With his 25 years of defending those charged with criminal offense, he is well-qualified to assess your options and make the appropriate recommendations. You may reach him at his Irvine office by calling (949) 474-8008 or by emailing him at bill@williamweinberg.com.