Former Sale’s Rep Accuses OxyContin Maker Of ‘Disturbing’ Marketing Practices Used To Push Pills After $635 Million Settlement

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Steve Birr Vice Reporter
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A former sale’s representative for Purdue Pharma is accusing the drug maker of continuing to misrepresent its opioid medication OxyContin following a federal lawsuit that resulted in fines of $635 million.

Carol Panara, who worked for Purdue Pharma from 2008 to 2013, says she was trained and financially incentivized to persuade doctors to prescribe their opioid painkiller for a wider variety of conditions, and at increasingly higher doses, according to an exclusive report from CBS News.

Panara claims the company continued to recklessly market OxyContin and severely downplay the risks for addiction and abuse following a 2007 lawsuit from the U.S. Department of Justice. Purdue Pharma pleaded guilty to a felony charge for false marketing of OxyContin and paid the $635 million settlement as a result. (RELATED: How One Painkiller Ignited The Addiction Epidemic)

Three executives also pleaded guilty to criminal charges but dodged prison time. Panara says within the company, leadership regarded the 2007 lawsuit as, “a little bit of a witch hunt on the government’s part.”

“It was always in the back of my mind that maybe the company had not told us the whole truth when they hired us, when we interviewed, when we went through training,” Panara told CBS News. “Sell as much as you can. The idea being that we’re trying to … expand our reach beyond just pain doctors.”

She says bonuses were in part paid to sales representatives who convinced doctors to prescribe large quantities of OxyContin painkillers. The company also allegedly taught sales representatives to push the concept of “pseudoaddiction” to doctors fearing patients were becoming addicted to the medication.

They would allegedly tell doctors that patients who appear to be suffering from symptoms of addiction to OxyContin are likely just in severe pain, and therefore need to be prescribed a higher dose of OxyContin. Peer-reviewed studies have generally found, “no empirical evidence” that pseudoaddiction exists.

“We actually — we did not have any studies,” Panara told CBS News. “That’s the thing that was kind of disturbing, was that we didn’t have studies to present to the doctors. … I think they misrepresented to the public. I think they misrepresented to their salespeople. And yeah, I think it was just a big charade.”

Purdue Pharma announced Tuesday they eliminated their entire remaining sales team, effectively ending any contact the company has with medical providers regarding their medications. The company cut more than half of their sales force in February when they announced an official end to their promotion of opioid painkillers directly to doctors.

Purdue Pharma denies allegations of complicity in the opioid epidemic and claims they are committed to curbing rates of opioid abuse.

“Purdue is confident that its past marketing and sales of its prescription opioid medications have been consistent with the information contained in the FDA-approved label as the agency oversees the risks and benefits of prescription medications,” representatives for the company said in a statement to CBS New. “Purdue is committed to working collaboratively with all those impacted by this public health crisis to help stem the tide of opioid related deaths and addiction.”

Purdue Pharma is owned by the Sackler family, listed at 19th on the annual Forbes list of wealthiest families in the country at a worth of $13 billion. The family’s fortune largely comes from OxyContin sales, which its company branded and introduced as an extended release painkiller in 1995.

Purdue Pharma is facing 24 lawsuits filed by state attorneys general and more than 400 lawsuits from cities and counties across the country. They accuse the company of orchestrating a fraudulent marketing scheme to boost sales of OxyContin that downplayed the risks for addiction from pain medication.

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