Purdue’s Marketing Changes Are Too Little Too Late, Doctors Say

By Kelly Burch 02/16/18

Many medical professionals feel that Purdue’s announcement is more about public perception than an actual desire for change. 

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After Purdue Pharma officially announced that it will stop marketing the opioid OxyContin directly to doctors’ offices, some medical professionals are saying that the decision comes too late and will do little to reverse the damage done by years of aggressive marketing. 

"They're 20 years late to the game," Dr. Noah Nesin, a family physician and vice president of medical affairs at Penobscot Community Health Care in Bangor, Maine, told NPR. “I think it's similar to the tobacco industry learning they could sell tobacco without spending a lot of money on advertising. My guess is this decision is in their self-interest.”

Maine Medical Association President Dr. Robert Schlager said that many doctors have already changed the way that they interact with pharmaceutical representatives. In 2007, Purdue paid $634 million in fines for allegedly misleading doctors about the effectiveness and safety of drugs including OxyContin. 

"I wouldn't expect it to have a very large role in limiting opioids further," Schlager said. "Because most of us, as prescribers, do limit our information exchange with the drug representatives who have been marketing opioids.”

He pointed out that the new policy will only take effect in the U.S. rather than in all Purdue Pharma’s markets around the world. "It seems a little bit not honest to just limit it here in the United States,” Schlager said.

Purdue Pharma responded by telling NPR via email that the company does not sell drugs outside the U.S., and that an affiliated company stopped marketing opioids in Europe already. However, a Los Angeles Times investigation from 2016 found that Purdue is increasingly promoting OxyContin in markets outside of the United States using affiliated companies. 

U.S. Surgeon General Vivek Murthy said at the time that he would advise other companies to look closely at what happened in the U.S. because of the aggressive marketing of highly addictive drugs. 

“I would urge them to be very cautious about the marketing of these medications,” he said. “Now, in retrospect, we realize that for many the benefits did not outweigh the risks.”

Former Food and Drug Administration Commissioner David Kessler said, “It’s right out of the playbook of Big Tobacco. As the United States takes steps to limit sales here, the company goes abroad.”

For now, many medical professionals are left feeling that Purdue’s announcement is more about public perception than an actual desire for change. 

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

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Kelly Burch writes about addiction and mental health issues, particularly as they affect families. Follow her on TwitterFacebook, and LinkedIn.