OxyContin Marketing Records To Be Unsealed Next Month Amid Opioid Abuse Concerns

A Kentucky judge has ordered the release of sealed documents involving the widely abused painkiller OxyContin, which may provide information the role played by the drug maker in spurring a narcotic painkiller epidemic in the United States. 

On Wednesday, Judge Steven Combs ordered that documents regarding OxyContin be unsealed in the public interest, despite protests from Purdue Pharmaceuticals, the manufacturer of the painkiller. The documents include a deposition by Richard Sackler, former company president and member of the family that owns Purdue, who was questioned about the marketing of OxyContin and its addictive properties.

The documents are scheduled to be released on June 12, but Purdue officials say they plan to appeal the decision. Judge Combs has agreed to stay the order at least temporarily if an appeal is filed, so it is unlikely the files will actually be publicly available by that date.

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The motion to unseal the documents was filed by STAT, an investigative health news outlet affiliated with the Boston Globe. However, the records were created during a lawsuit by the state of Kentucky over the marketing and development of the drug.

Critics say Purdue knew that OxyContin, approved in the mid 80s, was not effective as a long-acting 12-hour opioid painkiller, yet continued to aggressively market and promote the drug. As a result, critics indicate that patients ended up using higher and higher doses of the powerful painkiller, increasing the risk of addiction, abuse and overduse. Some suggest that the marketing of OxyContin played a major role in the doubling of drug overdose deaths from 2003 to 2013.

Purdue has denied the allegations, and resisted calls to change dosing recommendations for the opioid painkiller. It settled the lawsuit by Kentucky in December for $24 million, but made no admission of guilt.

OxyContin is a form of the narcotic oxycodone that is designed to release the painkilling medication into the bloodstream gradually over a 12-hour period. Approved by the FDA in 1996, drug abusers quickly discovered that the pill could be crushed and snorted or inhaled for an instant high. Often referred to on the street as “Hillbilly Heroin” or “Killers,” the drug has been linked to hundreds of drug overdoses and deaths.

The pill is one of the best-selling prescription pain medications in the United States, with more than $2 billion in annual sales.

In 2007, Purdue Pharma executives plead guilty to criminal charges that they made false and misleading statements downplaying the risk of Oxycontin addiction to doctors. Sales representatives were told to tell doctors that the drug did not cause euphoric highs and was not as addictive as other pain medications. They also told doctors the drug did not cause withdrawal symptoms.

Company executives agreed to pay $600 million in fines for their actions, and made a number of settlements on individual Oxycontin lawsuits filed against the company on behalf of people who had become addicted to the drug and suffered injuries, financial losses, overdoses or death.

Opioid Abuse Epidemic

Opioid painkillers belong to a class of drugs that are similar to heroin, in its way to treat pain. The drug also affects areas of the brain involved in addiction, causing dependency. When the potency of the drug wears off long before promised, patients can experience horrific symptoms of withdrawal, including pain, the craving for the drug, body aches, nausea, and anxiety, that are only relieved by the next dose of painkillers.

OxyContin, like many other opioid painkillers, was originally marketed to treat cancer pain and the terminally ill. Yet, Purdue spent $207 million pitching the drug to treat common conditions, like back aches and knee pain. The company promised twice a day dosing which critics say the drug didn’t live up to, causing many to become addicted, abuse the drug, and to overdose.

Other drug companies began to also market their opioid painkillers for everyday pains, and by 2010 one of every five doctor’s visits in the U.S. for pain resulted in a prescription for opioids. The epidemic was in full swing by this time and Purdue’s problem of the drug wearing off long before the promised 12-hour mark was never addressed.

More than 7 million Americans are believed to have abused OxyContin over the past 20 years. Many health experts blame OxyContin for sparking the nations’ prescription opioid epidemic, and say it alone has claimed more than 190,000 lives from overdoses.

The CDC reported in December that drug overdose deaths have reached an all-time high in the U.S., increasing 137% since 2000. Overdoses involving prescription opioid painkillers, such as Vicodin and OxyContin, have reached record levels. In 2014, more than 60% of overdose deaths involved some type of narcotic painkiller.


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