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Was deceptive marketing a catalyst for America's opioid crisis?

One seemingly innocuous phrase may have helped jump start the modern-day opioid abuse epidemic. The statement, used for years in marketing materials for the opiate painkiller OxyContin, implied that the drug was less likely than other similar medications to result in addiction. Specifically, the patient insert included with the drug from the time of its launch in 1996 (until the FDA required revamping in 2001) indicated that:

"Delayed absorption as provided by OxyContin tablets is believed to reduce the abuse liability of a drug."

The problem with this statement is that there is no clinical data or research to support it. Purdue Pharmaceuticals, maker of the drug, included the statement in its promotional and marketing materials without studying the medication's abuse potential.

More about OxyContin

OxyContin was the first extended release opiate to be specifically marketed to address moderate-to-severe, non-cancer pain. Prior to that point, opioids were almost always reserved for the insidious and chronic pain associated with late-stage cancers.

Salespeople pushed OxyContin as a panacea for even moderate, short-term pain. The marketing strategy was very different - and much more aggressive - than that of previous opioid painkillers.

  • According to internal Purdue Pharmaceutical memoranda released as part of a 2004 lawsuit against the company, the sales staff was specifically and repeatedly instructed to spend at least 70 percent of their time selling OxyContin to medical providers.

This intense sales push led to OxyContin taking over much of the market share for prescription pain medications. The drug has generated $35 billion in sales for Purdue since its launch in 1996.

The high cost

Those profits have come at a very high cost. Oft-abused drugs like OxyContin (referred to by dealers and addicts with the street names "Oxy," "OC" and the colorful moniker "Hillbilly Heroin,") resulted in an estimated 300,000 deaths between 1999 and 2015.

  • The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reports that an additional 63,600 people died of overdoses in 2016 alone, the majority of which are attributable to opioids like OxyContin and synthetic opioids like Fentanyl.

A "black box" warning was added to OxyContin over a decade ago, but unfortunately, the tide of destruction hasn't slowed. In fact, the opposite is true. CDC data reveals that, even though overdose deaths are likely underreported, they are now more common than several other leading causes of death among Americans, including kidney disease, pneumonia/influenza and suicide.

States, cities and counties across the country have brought suits against Purdue and other pharmaceutical makers alleging deceptive marketing practices and fraud. These cases have already cost the company collectively - and some of its top executives individually - more than $635 million. An additional 100-plus cases are still ongoing. The company proposed a mass settlement fund (similar to that used by the makers of defective hip replacements a few years ago) to resolve many of the outstanding claims.

Sadly, the unscrupulous actions of pharmaceutical companies like Purdue have wreaked havoc across Tennessee and much of the country in the form of abuse, overdose deaths, economic loss and other consequences.

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