The pharmaceutical giant behind the painkiller OxyContin is “restructuring,” announcing Friday they will stop promoting their opioid-based drug to doctors.
The unexpected shift in policy from Purdue Pharma is likely a concession to the demands of dozens of states and localities suing the drug maker, along with other manufacturers of opioid painkillers, for igniting the addiction crisis through deceptive marketing practices that downplayed the risks of their drugs. Purdue Pharma is the first major opioid drug maker to end the practice of marketing painkillers to medical professionals, reports Bloomberg.
The company slashed more than half of its current sales force, alerting staff to the changes in a letter earlier this week. The move reduces the sales staff to 200 employees. Purdue Pharma’s medical affairs team will now field any questions regarding pain medications from doctors.
“We have restructured and significantly reduced our commercial operation and will no longer be promoting opioids to prescribers,” representatives of Purdue Pharma said in a statement to Bloomberg Friday evening.
Dozens of lawsuits across the country allege Purdue Pharma launched a fraudulent marketing scheme to boost sales of OxyContin in the late 1990s that downplayed the risks for addiction from pain medication. Officials in Tennessee, which filed a lawsuit against Purdue Pharma Sept. 29, claim the company’s tactics served as a model for other major drug makers to do the same thing.
Medical professionals say a shift in the 1990s to “institutionalize” pain management opened the doors for pharmaceutical companies to encourage the mass prescribing of painkillers by doctors, and Purdue Pharma led that effort. (RELATED: How One Painkiller Ignited The Addiction Epidemic)
Purdue Pharma pleaded guilty in 2007 to felony charges for false marketing of OxyContin and paid $635 million as a result. The company was found to have overstated how long the effects of the medication lasted and severely downplayed the addiction risks of the drug. Three executives also pleaded guilty to criminal charges but dodged prison time.
Purdue Pharma denies allegations of complicity in the opioid epidemic and says it is committed to curbing rates of opioid abuse.
“We are deeply troubled by the opioid crisis and we are dedicated to being part of the solution,” a spokesman for Purdue Pharma previously told The Daily Caller News Foundation in response to a lawsuit filed by the attorney general of New Jersey. “Although our products account for approximately 2 percent of the total opioid prescriptions, as a company, we’ve distributed the CDC Guideline for Prescribing Opioids for Chronic Pain, developed three of the first four FDA-approved opioid medications with abuse-deterrent properties and partner with law enforcement to ensure access to naloxone. We vigorously deny these allegations and look forward to the opportunity to present our defense.”
Purdue Pharma is owned by the Sackler family, which is listed as one of the wealthiest families in the country on the annual Forbes list, worth approximately $13 billion. The family’s fortune largely comes from OxyContin sales, which their company branded and introduced as an extended release painkiller in 1995.
Drug overdoses are now the leading cause of accidental death for Americans under age 50, killing more than 64,000 people in 2016, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
The increase is driven primarily by opioids, which claimed 42,249 lives last year, a 28 percent increase over the roughly 33,000 lives lost to opioids in 2015.
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