Purdue Pharma To Stop Marketing OxyContin To Doctors

By Paul Gaita 02/14/18

Purdue will be directing its efforts away from Oxy and toward opioid-related constipation medication and other non-opioid medications.

illustration of a doctor shaking the hand of a medical rep

Facing lawsuits for its alleged role in the opioid epidemic, drug manufacturer Purdue Pharma announced on February 12 that it will no longer market its opioid pain medication, OxyContin, to doctors' offices.

The announcement, which was formally issued on February 9, added that the company has significantly "restructured and reduced" its commercial operation by cutting its sales force to about 200 representatives. The move drew scant praise from lawmakers—who continue to pursue the company for allegedly misrepresenting the risks of OxyContin while aggressively marketing it to medical professionals—and health care advocates, who cited declining sales as the primary reason for the decision.

The Stamford, Connecticut-based company, which earned $1.8 billion from the sale of OxyContin in 2017, announced that it will direct its remaining sales staff to focus on Symproic, which treats opioid-related constipation, and other non-opioid medications. Doctors with questions about OxyContin will be referred to the company's medical affairs department—a sea change from the company's previous policy, which had Purdue sales representatives visit medical professionals' offices to promote their products and reportedly woo them with promotional gifts at symposiums.

But for more than a decade, Purdue has come under fire for these aggressive marketing campaigns and claims about the drug's addictive properties. Rising sales of OxyContin ran concurrent with escalating death rates from opioid-related overdoses, which hit 42,000 in 2016, prompting an investigation into the company's marketing of the drug as providing 12 hours of pain relief, despite clear-cut evidence that the drug's efficacy wore off after eight hours.

Three Pharma executives pled guilty to federal charges over the misleading marketing in 2007, and the company paid more than $634 million in fines.

Since then, at least 14 states have filed suit against Purdue over similar allegations; Alabama became the latest, on February 6, when its Attorney General Steve Marshall accused the company of deceptively marketing prescription opioids in order to reap billions of dollars in sales of OxyContin. Though Purdue has denied all allegations listed in the various suits, it has also paid significant amounts to settle lawsuits, including $24 million to the state of Kentucky in 2015.

Response to the announcement was met with skepticism from some health care advocates and opioid dependency experts.

"I don't think that this is coming out of good intentions," said Andrew Kolodny, co-director of the Opioid Policy Research Collaborative at Brandeis University. "I think that sales for OxyContin have already been declining."

Statistics cited by Bloomberg note that the $1.8 billion Purdue earned from OxyContin sales in 2017 marked a significant decrease from figures posted just five years earlier, when sales topped $2.8 billion.

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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.