White Collar Drug Pushers

Article excerpt

AN AFFILIATE OF PURDUE PHARMA and three of its executives in May pled guilty to charges of misbranding the addictive drug Oxycontin. Purdue Pharma will pay more than $600 million in connection with the guilty plea.

The plea deal aimed to disgorge 90 percent of the Stamford, Connecticut-based Purdue's profits from Oxycontin sales from 1996 to 2001. The deal did not, however, impose felony charges on company executives, and it enabled Purdue to escape from harsh federal government procurement sanctions.

Oxycontin (generic name: oxycodone) is a highly addictive painkiller with major benefits for cancer patients and others with chronic pain.

But it is also an easy high for thousands of down-and-out people. It is especially popular as an abusive drug in Appalachia, where it is called hillbilly heroin.

The federal case against Purdue claimed the company marketed the drug to doctors without disclosing its addictive properties, with the result that it was improperly and overly prescribed.

Despite numerous warnings about abuse of the product, "Purdue, under the leadership of its top executives, continued to push a fraudulent marketing campaign that promoted Oxycontin as less addictive, less subject to abuse, and less likely to cause withdrawal," said United States Attorney John Brownlee.

"In the process," said Brownlee, "scores died as a result of OxyContin abuse and an even greater number of people became addicted to OxyContin; a drug that Purdue led many to believe was safer, less abusable, and less addictive than other pain medications on the market."

According to the Statement of Facts filed by federal prosecutors, beginning in January 1996 and continuing through June 30, 2001, Purdue's market research found that "[t]he biggest negative of [OxyContin] was the abuse potential." Nonetheless, federal prosecutors contend, Purdue sales representatives falsely told some healthcare providers that OxyContin had less euphoric effect and less abuse potential than short-acting opioids.

Purdue supervisors and employees also drafted an article about a study of the use of OxyContin in osteoarthritis patients that was published in a medical journal on March 27, 2000. Each company sales representative was provided a copy of the article, and sales representatives widely distributed copies of the article to healthcare providers to misleadingly claim that patients could abruptly discontinue taking the drug without withdrawal symptoms, according to federal prosecutors.

Said Assistant U.S. Attorney General Peter D. Keisler, "Purdue abused the drug approval process which relies on drug manufacturers to be forthright in reporting clinical data and, instead, misled physicians about the addiction and withdrawal issues involved with Oxycontin."

In a statement, Purdue stated, "Nearly six years and longer ago, some employees made, or told other employees to make, certain statements about OxyContin to some healthcare professionals that were inconsistent with the FDA-approved prescribing information for OxyContin and the express warnings it contained about risks associated with the medicine. …