Did Big Pharma Knowingly Conceal the Dangers of Oxycontin?
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Kentucky, America's Bluegrass State, is not usually known for establishing legal precedents. But later this month it is about to become the first state in the union to take on one of the world's biggest pharmaceutical firms, Purdue Pharma, arguing that despite ample evidence of the drug's addictive dangers, the company silently watched as Oxycontin become the one of the most widely abused—and deadly—prescription pills in the United States. The Kentucky lawsuit, waged by state prosecutors, alleges that Purdue knowingly downplayed the addictive nature of a pill that has thus far hooked an estimated 80,000 Kentuckians, as well as millions of Americans nationwide. A key aim of the state's prosecutors is to prove that the company used misleading graphs—reminiscent of tobacco companies' past efforts to minimize tobacco risks—to misrepresent Oxycontin's addictive nature. At a time when drug-related fatalities outnumbered traffic fatalities nationwide for the first time since such statistics were collected, Kentucky’s lawsuit is unique. Instead of just seeking reimbursement for Medicaid payments for patients who were prescribed Oxy, the suit demands restitution to pay for all the harm that the drug has caused in the state. The fine would cover education, prevention, healthcare and rehab for addicts, as well as “excessive prescription costs.” The state's lawsuit alleges that its citizens' “public health and safety have been significantly and negatively impacted due to the misrepresentations and omissions by Defendants [Purdue Pharma] regarding appropriate risks and uses of Oxycontin, ultimately leading to widespread inappropriate use of the drug.” One graph presented by Purdue in hearings over the safety of the drug indicated that Oxycontin stays in a patient’s bloodstream for at least 24 hours, which would significantly reduce the physical and psychological impact of withdrawal. But Kentucky prosecutors allege that the chart presented by Purdue was clearly manipulated and factually wrong. In fact, many doctors claim, Oxycontin's effects peak quickly in the bloodstream and leave the system after just a few hours, triggering severe withdrawal symptoms and cravings. Though the FDA ordered the misleading chart removed from Oxycontin's promotional materials way back in 1995, it continues to be a part of the company’s official labeling (see page 6 of this document). The lawsuit further alleges that despite the FDA's explicit 1995 ban on Purdue portraying extended-release Oxycontin as less addictive or less susceptible to abuse than other treatments—it's equivalent to other available drugs. Even so, Purdue still marketed Oxy to physicians as a less addictive opiate pain medication. The company stated that there were “fewer ‘peaks and valleys’ than with immediate release oxycodone,” doctoring the graphs to back its claims.