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OxyContin: Pharmaceutical Company Addicts Thousands for Profit

David E. Tompkins
Car Accident, Bicycle Accident and Pedestrian Accident Attorney for Maryland, D.C. and Virginia

ABINGDON, Va., May 10 —The company that makes the narcotic painkiller OxyContin and three current and former executives pleaded guilty today in federal court here to criminal charges that they misled regulators, doctors and patients about the drug’s risk of addiction and its potential to be abused. – The New York Times, 5/11/07

For all the advances that the pharmaceutical industry has given us, there are quite a few instances where innocent people were hurt because the pill makers valued profits over the truth.

The Vioxx incident is one example, where thousands of arthritis patients suffered from strokes and heart attacks because of side effects in their drugs. There was also the Orthro Evra birth control patch, which caused the formation of blood clots that traveled, and actually led to the deaths of some otherwise completely healthy women.

In both cases, Merck and Orthro Evra buried potentially damaging reports of the side effects of these products, both to keep the FDA from preventing their sale and to keep doctors writing prescriptions.

With the recent guilty plea of the executives of Purdue Pharmaceuticals, we have yet another example of a pharmaceutical company caring more about profits than the safety of their customers. What is the most insidious element of this instance is that by under-emphasizing the dangers of OxyContin and encouraging doctors to prescribe it when much lesser painkillers would have been appropriate, Purdue turned thousands of productive citizens into drug addicts, many of whom are facing jail time and some of whom have died.

The Basics

The main ingredient of OxyContin is an opioid analgesic called oxycodone. Oxycodone is not a new invention. It has been used effectively for years in drugs like Percocet, Percodan, and Combunox, which combine oxycodone in low doses with other non-opiod analgesics like aspirin, acetaminophen or ibuprofen.

OxyContin is almost pure oxycodone that comes in doses that are much higher than any other prescription that contains the drug. The selling point for OxyContin is that it is a time released drug, which means that it provides the patient with a near continuous stream of oxycodone over a long period.

Had this prescription been dispensed sparingly and only to those that really needed it, there wouldn’t even be an issue here. The intention of this drug was to provide continuous relief for patients that were suffering from near continuous severe pain, like cancer patients, burn victims or people recovering from multiple broken bones, and when taken correctly, OxyContin has been proven to work extremely well.

But since there just weren’t enough people in continuous severe pain to make OxyContin profitable enough, Purdue turned to its marketing department, who then made the claim that OxyContin is a drug that is less addictive, less subject to abuse and less likely to cause other narcotic side effects than other pain medications.

These claims are all completely false.

The Marketing Plan

Beginning in 1997, Purdue began an extraordinary marketing campaign to doctors all over the country. Their job was to get doctors, oral surgeons and hospitals to prescribe OxyContin for non-cancerous pain. This means prescriptions of OxyContin for bad ankle sprains, back pain, wisdom teeth removal, or other medical conditions where lower level pain relievers would have been much more adequate.

Many of these doctors did not have the necessary background in pain management to understand what they were being sold, and as a result many of them prescribed OxyContin where Tylenol 3 with Codeine or Vicodin would have been more than enough.

The FDA made things worse by allowing Purdue to claim in its marketing that the time-release action of the drug was “believed to reduce” the potential for addiction, which salesmen then treated as a fact rather than a theory when selling the drug.

Between 1996 and 2002, Purdue salesmen networked all over the country, showing doctors professionally made promotional videos and giving them gifts like golf balls, baseball caps and even stuffed animals with the OxyContin logo on them. Over this six year period, the number of salesmen dedicated solely to OxyContin jumped from 318 to 767, and sales of the drug led to 2.8 billion dollars in revenue.

The Epidemic

A 24-year-old Missoula man was arrested on felony burglary charges Monday, allegedly for breaking into a pharmacy and stealing $8,200 worth of OxyContin, a powerful narcotic painkiller.

Police arrested Andrew Hudson Bagley after identifying the man on surveillance footage from inside SavMor Drug, which is located on South Third Street West.

Officers who first arrived at the scene spotted a man fleeing the area who matched Bagley's description, and also recognized him from previous encounters. – The Missoulian, 5/15/2007

In a crackdown on the mushrooming illegal use of the painkiller OxyContin, federal agents staged raids on Long Island yesterday, charging three people, including a Massapequa doctor, with illegal distribution of the drug.

The doctor, Richard Morgan, 37, who lives at 1 Jordan St., Oceanside, and has offices at 583A Broadway Ave., Massapequa, and in Manhattan, wrote more than 1,500 prescriptions for OxyContin and other narcotics between October 2006 and this month for people who were not his patients or whom he had never met or examined, according to officials. Morgan was accused of supplying the drug to what was identified as an OxyContin ring that operated mainly in Smithtown and Kings Park.. – Newsday, 5/15/2007

John Riley Hays, formerly a family practice physician in the Southern Illinois town of Herrin, first took OxyContin three years ago when a patient turned in a bottle containing some leftover pills.

Hays, 42, at the time had been suffering excruciating back pain from a car accident, preventing a decent night of sleep. The much weaker painkillers he had been given weren't doing the trick.

Hays knew that ingesting the OxyContin was wrong. But he also believed the claims of sales representatives that OxyContin is safe and nonaddictive.

Within a few minutes of consuming that first OxyContin tablet, Hays said, "I felt like Superman. I could work all day, be happy, go home, play with the kids. Do everything that I wanted to do.... I just felt like a million bucks."

The addiction advanced rapidly. Within six weeks, he was stealing OxyContin from patients, crushing up the pills to mix in a saline solution, loading it into a hypodermic needle and plunging it into his arm. He also bought OxyContin from local pharmacies under false names. – Belleville News Democrat, 10/7/2003

Rush Limbaugh announced on his radio program Friday that he is addicted to pain medication and that he is checking himself into a treatment center immediately.

"You know I have always tried to be honest with you and open about my life," the conservative commentator said in a statement on his nationally syndicated radio show. "I need to tell you today that part of what you have heard and read is correct. I am addicted to prescription pain medication."

Law enforcement sources said last week that Limbaugh's name had come up during an investigation into a black market drug ring in Palm Beach County, Florida. The sources said that authorities were looking into the illegal sale of the prescription drugs OxyContin and hydrocodone. – CNN, 10/10/2003

There are three elements to this new epidemic of OxyContin addictions. The first would be those who were legally prescribed OxyContin when suffering from an injury and became addicted to the pills themselves.

The second would be teenagers or young adults, who found out rather quickly that if the pill was crushed and snorted, or “cooked” and injected, that it provided a high that was just as good as or even better than heroin.

The third is, of course, drug dealers, who are always on the lookout for a new product to sell. A prescription pill available at any pharmacy that packs just as much of a punch as heroin or morphine is a perfect product for drug users everywhere. What’s even more insidious is that because of the OxyContin’s high cost, some addicts that can no longer afford it turn to heroin:

‘‘‘The trend over the last five years has definitely been upward,' High Point Executive Director Daniel Mumbauer said of heroin use. ‘They (OxyContin users) tend to be younger folks, 18 to 24. It tends to be someone stealing (a prescription) from parents and experimenting with it. The fear is experimenting with OxyContin is very expensive. Then heroin is very cheap. So they go to heroin because of the cheapness of it,' –The Patriot Ledger, 1/22/2005

Purdue Pharma basically encouraged doctors all over the country to give moderately injured patients a drug that is as addictive and as dangerous as heroin. The insidious effects of this drug have reached every neighborhood in every town and city in America. Fines for the perpetrators don't seem to be an adequate sentence. Would you fine a heroin dealer or would you send him to jail?

The attorneys at Lewis and Tompkins believe that the quest for profits should not involve lying about or misrepresenting the dangers of your products. If you or a loved one have been injured due to a product that was misrepresented as safe, contact our offices for a free legal consultation today.