The Billionaire Pill

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In a recent Forbes magazine article about this nation’s twenty richest families, the Sackler family was number sixteen on the list. The Sacklers are estimated to be richer than the Mellons, Rockefellers, and Busches. (http://www.forbes.com/sites/alexmorrell/2015/07/01/the-oxycontin-clan-the-14-billion-newcomer-to-forbes-2015-list-of-richest-u-s-families/

You say you don’t know the Sackler family? I’ll remind you. They own one-hundred percent of Purdue Pharma, a pharmaceutical company best known for manufacturing their block-buster drug OxyContin.

This is a bitter pill for me to swallow.

I started working in the field of opioid addiction treatment in 2001. At that time, nearly every opioid addict I saw was using OxyContin as their main drug. Opioid addiction in general and OxyContin addition in particular plagued many small towns and rural areas where I worked.

OxyContin was widely prescribed for pain. This powerful drug was advertised as “The one to start with and the one to stay with,” during sales pitches to rural physicians. OxyContin flooded the black market. Opioid addict quickly discovered OxyContin’s time-release coating could be easily defeated, and the pill was often snorted or injected for the rush of opioid euphoria it produced.

I was certainly not the only doctor to notice the rise of OxyContin addiction.

Barry Meier’s book Pain Killer: A “Wonder” Drug’s Trail of Addiction and Death (Rodale Books, 2003), tells the story of small town doctors trying to get the attention of Purdue Pharma, the government, or anybody else who could help change the destruction OxyContin was doing to Appalachia around that time.

I remember attending a pain and addiction conference around sometime around 2003 or 2004. At the end of the lecture explaining how opioids could be prescribe safely, a doctor from Virginia dared to ask the experts something along the lines of, “What are we going to do about OxyContin?” I thought to myself that I was glad someone had finally said what I was thinking.
This was a long time ago; I don’t remember exact words, but my memory is that he was soundly rebuffed for daring to mention one specific drug by name. He was scolded and told that the real problem was with opioids in general, and one drug company (who happened to have some of the lecturers on their payroll) should not be singled out as the problem.

I remembered wishing those experts could spend a day at my treatment program talking to the OxyContin addicts.

Eventually, the U.S. General Accounting Office asked for a report about the promotion of OxyContin by Purdue Pharma. By 2002, prescriptions written for non-cancer pain accounted for 85% of the OxyContin sold, despite a lack of data regarding the safety of this practice. By 2003, primary care doctors, with little or no training in the treatment of chronic non-cancer pain, prescribed about half of all OxyContin prescriptions written in this country. By 2003, the FDA cited Purdue Pharma twice for using misleading information in its promotional advertisements to doctors. [1, 2] Purdue Pharma also trained its sales representatives to make deceptive statements during OxyContin’s marketing to doctors. [3]

Testifying before Congress in 2002, a Purdue Pharma representative said the company was working of re-formulating OxyContin, to make it harder to use intravenously. This representative claimed it would take several years to achieve this re-formulation. The re-formulated OxyContin was finally approved by the FDA in 2010, eight years later. Currently, this medication forms a viscous hydrogel if someone attempts to inject or snort the medication. It isn’t abuse-proof; probably no opioid will ever be so, but it is much more abuse-deterrent than the original.

Did Purdue Pharma drag their feet in this re-formulation? Experts like Paul Caplan, executive director for risk management for the drug company, said there were issues about the safety of incorporating naloxone into the pill to make it less desirable to intravenous addicts. He also pointed out that some delay in approval was due to the FDA.

For comparison, Sterling Pharmaceutical, when it became widely known patients were abusing their pain medication Talwin, re-formulated within a year, adding naloxone to the medication and reducing its desirability on the black market. Since this was in the 1980’s, I would assume there was less technology to help back then, compared to 2002.

I’ll let readers draw their own conclusions.

In May of 2007, three officers of Purdue Pharma pled guilty to misleading the public about the drug’s safety. Their chief executive officer, general counsel, and chief scientific officer pled guilty as individuals to misbranding a pharmaceutical. They did no jail time but paid $34.5 million to the state of Virginia, where the lawsuit was brought.

The Purdue Pharma Company agreed to pay a fine of $600 million. Though this is one of the largest amounts paid by a drug company for illegal marketing, Purdue made 2.8 billion dollars in sales from the time of its release in 1996 until 2001.

None of the Sackler family members were charged, because they were not involved in the day to day running of the company.

And now the Sackler family is worth billions.

1. General Accounting Office OxyContin Abuse and Diversion
report GAO-04-110, 2003.
2. United States Senate. Congressional hearing of the Committee
on Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions, on Examining
the Effects of the Painkiller OxyContin, 107th Congress, Second
Session, February, 2002.
3. Washington Times, “Company Admits Painkiller Deceit,”
May 11, 2007, accessed online at http://washingtontimes.
com/news/2007/may/10/20070510-103237-4952r/prinnt/ on
12/18/2008.

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4 responses to this post.

  1. Posted by Trudy Duffy on July 8, 2015 at 4:57 pm

    Thank you for continuing to raise awareness about this public health tragedy. Far too many people still fail to recognize the harm done, unnecessary deaths and shortage of treatment options.

    Reply

  2. Posted by William Taylor, MD on July 8, 2015 at 5:23 pm

    Drug companies that bring a genuinely new and useful molecule to market deserve to be rewarded for their innovation. But there’s a lot of reformulations of old molecules, complete with patent protection and fancy marketing, that are more ripoffs than genuine therapeutic advances. Oxycontin is one, but so is Zohydro, Colacrys, and to some extent Suboxone. The oxycontin story is particularly shameful because of its toll of addiction and overdose.

    Reply

  3. Posted by julie devereaux on July 8, 2015 at 6:24 pm

    “By 2003, the FDA cited Purdue Pharma twice for using misleading information in its promotional advertisements to doctors. [1, 2] Purdue Pharma also trained its sales representatives to make deceptive statements during OxyContin’s marketing to doctors.” The current opioid/opiate epidemic is on their dirty hands and the dirty hands of the FDA for not shutting them and those like them completely down. There is absolutely no need for another form of heroin “marketed” by sleazy drug companies delivered with a “doctor’s seal of approval” to an unsuspecting public. We already have heroin and the knowledge of it’s addictive properties. And shame on the Sackler family for allowing this to happen in their name. [3]

    Reply

  4. Posted by Beverly Straneva on July 8, 2015 at 8:59 pm

    First THANK YOU for being the doctor that you are!
    And as far as this article- I shared it on Facebook and a friend asked about the whereabouts of the fine money. Any idea who got it? ( probably the lawyers got most)

    Reply

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