Purdue Pharma, the maker of opioid-based OxyContin, said over the weekend that it will no longer promote the drug to physicians and announced that it was laying off more than half of its sales representatives as a result, leaving about 200 salespeople to sell non-opioid products.
“The announcement, first reported by Bloomberg, marks the end of an era for a company that changed the paradigm for opioid use in part through aggressive, in-person marketing to doctors. Sales of OxyContin and other opioids have fallen recently amid pressure from regulators, insurers, and the general public. The company has been unable to develop or buy a drug to replace OxyContin’s sales,” Lev Father and David Armstrong write for Stat.
“Instead, the company has mounted a vast public-relations effort in the face of increasing criticism — most notably with recent full-page ads in major newspapers.”
Indeed, a pop-up on the Stamford-Conn.-based company's homepage directs readers to its “open letter about the opioid crisis”: “No one solution will end the crisis, but multiple, overlapping efforts will. We want everyone engaged to know you have a partner in Purdue Pharma. This is our fight, too,” it concludes.
“Purdue's head of medical affairs, Monica Kwarcinski, sent a letter to prescribers updating what she described as the company's efforts to support responsible opioid use,” writes John Bacon for USA Today.
“Effective Monday, February 12, 2018, our field sales organization will no longer be visiting your offices to engage you in discussions about our opioid products. Requests for information about our opioid products will be handled through direct communication with the highly experienced health care professionals that comprise our Medical Affairs department,” it reads.
“Many public-health officials have said Purdue’s aggressive marketing of OxyContin after the drug’s 1996 launch helped encourage lax prescribing and widespread addiction that for many people progressed to heroin and other illicit drugs. More than 300,000 Americans have died from opioid overdoses since the late 1990s,” Jeanne Whalen reminds us in the Wall Street Journal.
“In 2007, Purdue and three of its executives pleaded guilty in federal court to criminal charges of misleading the public about the addictive qualities of OxyContin. Purdue and the executives agreed to pay $634.5 million in government penalties and costs to settle the civil litigation,” Whalen continues.
“Brandeis University researcher Dr. Andrew Kolodny, a longtime critic of the pharmaceutical industry's role in the opioid epidemic, welcomed Purdue's announcement but said, ‘It's pretty late in the game to have a major impact,’” Ben Poston writes for the Los Angeles Times.
“The genie is already out of the bottle,” Kolodny tells Poston. “Millions of Americans are now opioid-addicted because the campaign that Purdue and other opioid manufacturers used to increase prescribing worked well. And as the prescribing went up, it led to a severe epidemic of opioid addiction.”
“Purdue and other drugmakers have been fighting lawsuits by states, counties and cities that have accused them of pushing addictive painkillers through deceptive marketing. The lawsuits have generally accused Purdue of downplaying OxyContin’s addiction risk and of misleading marketing that overstated the benefits of opioids for treating chronic, rather than short-term, pain,” Reuters reports. “Purdue has denied the allegations in the various lawsuits. It has said its drugs are approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration and account for only 2% of all opioid prescriptions.”
In The Guardian last month, Joanna Walters chronicled the activism of Brooklyn-based photographer Nan Goldin, who says she hardly left her house for three years when she was dependent on OxyContin after a doctor in Berlin, Germany, prescribed it for tendonitis in her left wrist.
“The first time I got a ’scrip it was 40 milligrams and it was too strong for me; they made me nauseated and dulled. By the end, I was on 450mg a day,” Goldin tells Walters, who writes: “Eventually she was crushing and snorting them. When, back in New York, doctors refused to supply her any more, she turned to the black market, and to cheaper hard street drugs whenever she ran out of money.”
It is a familiar story to those addicted to opioids and their families. In 2016, there were more than 63,600 drug overdose deaths in the U.S., according to a report released by the Centers for Disease Control in December.
Goldin has mounted a campaign (#ShameOnSackler) on social media to hold the Sackler family, which controls the company and has become a visible patron of the art world, to account. She wants to “shame the family into paying for rehab and overdose antidotes instead of patios in art museums,” Walters writes.
“I’m not asking the museums to give the money back,” she says, “but I don’t want them to take any more from the Sacklers, and I want them to put out statements in solidarity with my campaign.”