In a surprise move, Purdue Pharma, the manufacturer of the opiate painkiller OxyContin, has said that it will reduce its direct sales force and stop the direct marketing of opiates to doctors. In a release yesterday, the drug maker said it had reduced its sales force by more than half to about 200 positions. The remaining 200 sales positions will focus their efforts on the drugmaker’s non-opioid products. Purdue Pharma has total revenue of about $3 billion, with perhaps a third of the total coming from painkiller OxyContin. The company continues to be the largest seller of prescription painkillers in the United States, and also has a prescription sleep aid line of drugs and over-counter-products.
Lawsuits have accused Purdue Pharma of being a prime contributor to the current opioid epidemic in the United States through the aggressive marketing of OxyContin.
OxyContin was launched by Purdue Pharma in 1995. It was an extended release version of the opiate Oxycodone, which had been used to treat pain since 1916. Purdue sold the drug by trying to convince Doctors that previous concerns regarding opioid addiction and abuse had been overdone and resulted in patient pain and discomfort that could have been effectively treated. Because OxyContin was an extended release version of Oxycodone, requiring use only once every twelve hours, many initially believed that it would be less addictive than other narcotics.
A surge in prescriptions of opioids followed the 1995 release of the drug when about 90 million opioid prescriptions were filled. The peak year for opioid prescriptions was 2011 when 220 million prescriptions were filled. When regulators and lawmakers finally cracked down on growing prescription drug abuse, millions already addicted began turning to cheaper heroin.
Purdue agreed to pay $600 million in 2007 for misleading the public about the risks of using OxyContin. Other lawsuits remain, and a key demand in the remaining lawsuits was that Purdue Pharma drop its direct marketing efforts for pain medications. Most of those lawsuits have been consolidated in U.S. District Court, under Judge Dan Polster.