On Tuesday, 24 November 2020, OxyContin Manufacturer Purdue Pharma pled guilty to three criminal charges in federal court. This marks the first time the company has admitted to its contribution to the pervasive abuse of the drug. OxyContin is the brandname for Oxycodone, a synthetic opioid medication used for moderate to severe pain relief. In 2011, Oxycodone was the leading cause of drug-related deaths in the U.S., and since then has been eclipsed only by fentanyl and heroin. According to the U.S. Centres for Disease Control and Prevention, in 2018 nearly 50,000 Americans died of an opioid-related drug overdose. In Canada, roughly 16,000 opioid-related deaths occurred between January 2016 and March 2020, according to the Public Health Agency of Canada.
One study found that when Purdue Pharma introduced OxyContin in 1996, the drug was aggressively marketed. Purdue’s marketing campaign for OxyContin involved sophisticated marketing data used to influence physicians’ prescribing habits. Purdue compiled profiles on physicians in order to single out the ones who prescribed opioids at the highest rate, who were the least discriminate prescribers, and who had the most patients with chronic pain. As part of its marketing campaign, Purdue also misrepresented OxyContin’s addictiveness, falsely claiming the risk for addiction was extremely small.
In a virtual hearing on 24 November in Newark, New Jersey, the company pled guilty to one count of dual-object conspiracy to defraud the United States and to violate the Food, Drug, and Cosmetic Act, and two counts of conspiracy to violate the Federal Anti-Kickback Statute. The agreement includes a direct payment to the federal government of $225 million.
Purdue admitted that it had not attempted to prevent the diversion of the prescription drug to the black market, and had misrepresented information when it previously told the Drug Enforcement Administration that it had a program to combat the black market sale of the drug. Purdue also admitted to paying doctors through a speakers program to provide them with incentive to write more prescriptions for OxyContin.
There were no criminal charges filed against the wealthy Sackler family who owns Purdue Pharma, but the plea deal leaves that possibility open in the future. Purdue declared bankruptcy last year, and as part of the plea agreement, the company will be dissolved. Its assets will be used to create a new “public benefit company” controlled by a trust or similar entity. “Having our plea accepted in federal court, and taking responsibility for past misconduct, is an essential step to preserve billions of dollars of value for creditors and advance our goal of providing financial resources and lifesaving medicines to address the opioid crisis,” Purdue said in a written statement.
“We continue to work tirelessly to build additional support for a proposed bankruptcy settlement, which would direct the overwhelming majority of the settlement funds to state, local and tribal governments for the purpose of abating the opioid crisis,” the statement continued.
For those affected by the opioid crisis the plea deal is not enough. The stigma around drug addiction stops many from seeking help, and the legal nature of the prescription drug further complicates the status of those who abuse it. The ongoing opioid crisis, which appears to be worsening during the COVID-19 pandemic, has contributed to the suffering and death of an untold number of individuals. This recent court case highlights a major issue with the lack of regulation around the marketing of prescription drugs. This case also calls attention to the lack of oversight in how drugs like OxyContin are sold and distributed.
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