Purdue Pharma Perpetrated the Opioid Crisis

How Purdue Pharma Perpetrated the Opioid Crisis

When OxyContin was first introduced to the market, some thought it was a miracle drug. Those with chronic or crippling pain had found a respite in which to heal, thanks to this pill.

OxyContin was a form of OxyCodone, an opiate that is highly effective for managing pain. What made OxyContin so unique was its time-release mechanism, allowing users only to need one pill every 12 hours. But it is also an opiate and highly addictive.

Unfortunately for many, Purdue Pharma’s misrepresentation led to widespread addiction and a public health crisis. The pharmaceutical company downplayed the risks associated with OxyContin while also aggressively marketing the medication. The result was a major opioid crisis that began in 1996 and hasn’t stopped.

Context of a Crisis

safe disposal sitesIn 1995, the pharmaceutical giant Pharma Purdue was about to release a brand new medicine they were fast-tracking to non-cancer patients with chronic pain. The drug’s name was OxyContin, and it had a specific time-release mechanism.

People in the medical community and patients hoped that OxyContin could help those with chronic pain, and doctors began prescribing the drug to help non-cancer patients manage painful symptoms.

On the manufacturing end, Purdue Pharma, owned by the Sackler Family, allegedly used false claims in OxyContin’s marketing strategies and made billions of dollars from this single medication’s sales. The opioid crisis that swept the nation in the late-90s and 2000s can undoubtedly be attributed to OxyContin’s uptick in pain medication prescriptions.

OxyContin is the time-released version of OxyCodone, and the time-release mechanism was supposed to make this medication less susceptible to addiction and misuse. That was not the case, and it soon became apparent that users could mainline OxyContin by extracting the OxyCodone and using it without the time-release mechanism.

Timeline of a Crisis

Humans have been using botanicals to assuage pain for centuries, and opiates have proven to be one of the most valuable pain medications we have. Opiates derived from the poppy plant are highly addictive, whether in street form as black tar heroin or as a prescribed medication such as OxyContin.

Regardless of Purdue Pharma’s true intentions when introducing OxyContin, they took a misstep by marketing OxyContin as a safe and effective alternative to other opiates.

In 1995, Purdue Pharma conducted an OxyContin study of 133 elderly individuals with osteoporosis; only 63 completed the trial. Out of these, 82% had adverse events linked to the clinical trial, yet Purdue Pharma concluded OxyContin was a “Safe and effective analgesic for the control of osteoarthritis-related pain.”

OxyContin was officially released in December 1995, and Purdue Pharma aggressively marketed OxyContin as a safe pain pill. In particular, the time-release mechanism was meant as a fail-safe, even though the studies were not showing the same results.

Similar sorts of misrepresentation continued, along with focused sales ploys, until finally, in 2017, the federal government filed criminal charges against Purdue Pharma. This was also the same year that the federal government declared a Public Health Crisis because of prescription opioids.

But Purdue Pharma wasn’t acting alone; OxyContin abuse and use wouldn’t have been quite so rampant if not for the turbo-charged marketing ploys suggested by the consulting firm McKinsey & Company. Luckily, legal steps have since been taken; McKinsey & Company was recently ordered to pay a fine of $573 million with agreements with the attorney generals in 49 states for the consulting firm’s part in the national opioid crisis.

Using Marketing Ploys

Over two decades, 450,000 people died due to opioid addiction in a crisis of astronomical scope. The misleading of the public and the medical community about OxyContin’s true addictive nature was where Purdue Pharma, under the encouragement of their consultants, were found to have actively engaged in fraud.

McKinsey & Company is a consulting firm that helped and encouraged Purdue Pharma to market OxyContin. It wasn’t just pharmaceutical executives and employees that felt the pressure from Purdue Pharma. The company’s close ties with hospitals and insurance companies allowed for misrepresentations across the board.

Doctors were given perks for overprescribing OxyContin and downplaying the medication’s highly addictive properties. McKinsey & Co. also endorsed a renewed focus on high-dose pills, which are especially dangerous and highly addictive.

Purdue pleaded guilty in 2017 to criminal charges, asserting that the company had misled doctors and other medical professionals about OxyContin’s risks and had misrepresented the medication as safe.

The Opioid Crisis Today

Although legal steps have been taken and compensation is on its way, that doesn’t mean that the opioid crisis is over. The initial wave of the opioid crisis opened the door for a surge of addiction issues. The first wave of deaths and abuse issues indeed stemmed from OxyContin’s over-promotion and targeted influence, and the second and third wave could be attributed to OxyContin’s scarcity.

The second wave, in 2010, was composed mainly of heroin overdoses, possibly due to the scarcity of OxyContin and OxyCodone on the market at this point as availability and advertising ratcheted down.

The third wave, beginning in 2013, has seen the tides turn toward synthetic opiates like fentanyl. The market for illegally manufactured fentanyl is ever-changing and frequently a challenge for public health officials and law enforcement.

However, reparations are underway, which may prove to be a light through at the end of the tunnel. In November 2020, Purdue Pharma pleaded guilty to criminal charges in OxyContin’s

marketing and was ordered to pay $8.3 billion, after which the pharmaceutical giant declared bankruptcy, forcing states to go after the company’s creditors instead.

State will distribute financial redress, and some will use them to fund treatment and prevention programs.

The Takeaway

Alcohol and recovery

Since the late 1990s, the United States has suffered under rolling drug addiction. In addition to lower economic and rural communities, high-profile individuals such as lawyers, first responders, teachers, celebrities, and people in wealthy communities fell victim to opioid addiction. Using prescription painkillers at parties was trendy and expected in many circles.

OxyContin was a behemoth as millions of Americans became addicted, and Purdue Pharma did nothing to stem the flow.

As anyone who’s been in recovery knows, change happens one step at a time, and it seems like this time, the legal steps against Purdue Pharma are moving in the right direction.


Written by Sergey Zhitar, MD Medical Director

Native of Moldova, Dr. Zhitar is Board Certified in Addiction Medicine as well as Internal Medicine and completed his training at UPMC Shadyside, Pittsburgh, PA in 2000.

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