Report: Purdue Pharma Knew OxyContin Was Prone To Abuse Despite Aggressively Marketing It As Less Addictive

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Andrew Kerr Investigative Reporter
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Purdue Pharma, the drug manufacturer accused of launching the opioid epidemic for the aggressive marketing of its painkiller OxyContin, knew the painkiller was prone to “significant” abuse, despite aggressively promoting the drug as a safer alternative to other painkillers.

A confidential Justice Department report reveals that company officials had received reports within a year of OxyContin’s release in 1996 that pills were being stolen from pharmacies and that addicts were crushing and snorting the pills, The New York Times reports.

Prosecutors discovered 117 references to the words “street value,” “crush,” or “snort” in notes Purdue sales representatives had recorded of their visits to doctors from 1997 through 1999.

The owners of Purdue, the Sackler Family, were in the know of OxyContin’s addictive nature as early as 1999, according to emails cited in the 120-page Justice Department report.

Richard Sackler was told in 1999 when he was president of Purdue that drug abusers were talking about snorting OxyContin in internet chat rooms, the report said. OxyContin founders Ramond and Mortimer Sackler were also informed that people were abusing the drug’s predecessor, MS Contin.

“We have in fact picked up references to abuse of our opioid products on the internet,” Purdue general counsel Howard Udell wrote in an early 1999 email to a company official.

But Purdue aggressively marketed its pill to doctors “in the face of this knowledge,” according to the Justice Department’s report. OxyContin generated about $35 billion in sales between 1995 and 2015, making the Sacklers the 19th-richest family in America with an estimated net worth of $13 billion. (RELATED: American Cartel: Billionaire Family Behind OxyContin Apparently Spends ZILCH Rehabbing Addicts) 

Dr. Paul Goldenheim, Purdue’s chief medical officer, testified before Congress in 2001 that the company was “taken by surprise” at the drug’s growing abuse problem.

“We launched OxyContin in 1996, and for the first four years on the market, we did not hear of any particular problem,” Goldenheim said.

Purdue’s aggressive marketing tactics helped convince doctors that opioids, which were typically only given to terminally ill patients, were safe to use for more routine injuries. OxyContin, the company claimed, was less addictive than shorter-acting painkillers such as Percocet and Vicodin.

By 2010, one out of every five visits to a doctor resulted in an opioid prescription. (RELATED: How One Painkiller Ignited The Addiction Epidemic)

More than 50,000 Americans died from opioid overdoses in 2016, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

“Purdue’s aggressive marketing of OxyContin exacerbated the abuse and diversion problems,” Drug Enforcement Administration said in a 2003 report.

Purdue and three top executives pleaded guilty in 2007 to charges that the company had misled doctors about OxyContin’s addictive nature and potential for abuse between 1996 and 2001.

The executives escaped jail time, despite prosecutors recommending that the executives be indicted on felony charges. Purdue and the executives were instead ordered to pay a $635 million settlement.

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