Oxy Manufacturers Now Targeting Global Market As Sales In America Decline

By Paul Gaita 12/21/16

With Oxy sales down nearly 40% since 2010, the drug's manufacturers are taking the controversial marketing strategies that helped fuel the opioid epidemic abroad.


Though opioid addiction continues to claim thousands of lives each year in America, some progress has been made this year to reduce that statistic by cutting back on the number of prescriptions written for opioid painkillers.

Guidelines issued by the CDC that encouraged doctors to seek alternatives to opioids for the treatment of chronic pain, as well as a wealth of media coverage on the dangers of prescription opioids, appear to have contributed to a decline in prescriptions for certain pain medications like Vicodin, Percocet and OxyContin. 

Among these is Purdue Pharma, which manufactures the painkiller OxyContin, a core contributor to the prescription opioid addiction epidemic due to the company's aggressive marketing strategies and deliberate withholding of information regarding the drug's efficacy.

The new guidelines, combined with a mountain of media evidence detailing Purdue's activities—including a multi-part investigation by the Los Angeles Times into OxyContin's role in the opioid addiction epidemic—have cut into Purdue's vast fortunes. Estimates by Forbes placed the company's net worth down by $1 billion from 2015 figures.

Despite the decline, Purdue remains a wealthy and powerful company, earning millions of dollars in profits from sales of its products—some $600 million of which comes annually from its network of international companies, which have provided inroads into Latin America, Asia and other regions.

According to the Los Angeles Times' latest report, Purdue has been pushing medical professionals in these countries to expand their patients' access to opioid painkillers, much in the same careless manner as the company behaved in the United States a decade ago. 

The global network of companies, which operate under the name Mundipharma, have launched public awareness campaigns that encourage doctors to resist "opiophobia" and treat chronic pain with prescription drugs, while also courting patients by dispelling fears of addiction to opioids. In some cases, financial discounts and even coupons for free initial prescriptions of OxyContin have been offered to patients in an attempt to make them seem like more affordable alternatives.

In Spain, Mundipharma has enlisted celebrities—including those willing to pose without clothing—to promote the treatment of chronic pain through doctors who have formed alliances with the company. The result: a seven-fold increase in painkiller sales in Spain, though Mundipharma pulled the celebrity spots from its YouTube channel after the Times submitted questions about the advertising campaign.

Misinformation, obfuscation of facts and sales and training seminars disguised as lavish, all-expenses-paid weekends for doctors—all hallmarks of Purdue's promotional strategies in the United States—also seem to be key components of the company's international outreach. The Times feature cites several medical professionals enlisted by Mundipharma to sell Purdue's products at international seminars.

In all cases, the consultants—a Florida pain management doctor, a psychiatrist from Reno and a pain doctor from Mexico's national cancer institute—pushed a message of "educating" foreign doctors on the benefits of using prescription drugs to help chronic pain without fear of side effects. Willem Scholten, a former World Health Organization official hired by Mundipharma, said that public health officials in the United States have exaggerated claims of an opioid crisis, and "hardly any evidence" exists that patients with chronic pain abuse medication.

"The problem is a lot of crime," said Scholten. "If other countries make good regulations, they won't have similar problems."

Response to Purdue and other companies' push into foreign markets has been met with concern. Former U.S. Food and Drug Administration commissioner David A. Kessler called the international strategy "right out of the playbook of Big Tobacco. As the United States takes steps to limit sales here, the company goes abroad."

Surgeon General Vivek H. Murthy urged medical professionals in other countries to be "very cautious about the marketing of these medications. Now, in retrospect, we realize that for many, the benefits did not outweigh the risks." As for claims regarding the safety of opioid use, University of Kentucky addiction expert Sharon Walsh said, "That is exactly the same thing they were teaching U.S. physicians when they launched OxyContin in this country."

Mundipharma's expansion into the global market comes at a time when health experts are noting an uptick in prescription opioid use in other parts of the globe. Though prescription tracking is more advanced in Europe than in the United States, a recent survey of drug abuse on the continent found that individuals with opioid prescriptions are eight times more likely to abuse those drugs.

In Spain, where Mundipharma caught consumers' eyes with racy ad campaigns, 18% of those surveyed stated that they had abused painkillers at some point in their lives. Even in one of the smallest European countries—the island of Cyprus—six people were reported to have died as a result of the drug, and requests for rehabilitation treatment have increased. 

"[European] nations are potentially at the precipice of a major public health problem if prescribing increases," said Scott Novak, a scientist at the non-profit health research organization RTI International. Mundipharma responded by citing their own studies in Britain and Germany, where they reportedly found that prescription opioid abuse is "less than 1%." Their attitude is largely summed up by the managing director of Mundipharma's Cyprus office, Menicos M. Petrou, who said, "If people misuse drugs, most of the time there is little a pharmaceutical company can do."

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Paul Gaita lives in Los Angeles. He has contributed to the Los Angeles Times, Variety, LA Weekly, Amazon.com and The Los Angeles Beat, among many other publications and websites.