OxyContin-maker to stop promoting opioid painkiller to doctors

The maker of the painkiller OxyContin is to stop promoting the drug to doctors and halve its salesforce, as it faces a growing number of lawsuits over its role in the US opioid crisis.

Purdue Pharma said its remaining 200 sales representatives would no longer visit doctors’ offices to promote its opioid drugs. OxyContin is Purdue’s biggest-selling drug and is estimated to have generated $1.8bn of sales last year, down from $2.8bn five years earlier. The Connecticut-based company is owned by the Sackler family, whose wealth exceeds $13bn.

Purdue said: “We have restructured and significantly reduced our commercial operation and will no longer be promoting opioids to prescribers.”

Opioid overdoses have become the leading cause of death among the under-50s in the US. Opioids, including methadone and fentanyl, heroin and other opiates, were responsible for about 53,000 US deaths in 2016; an average of 146 a day, according to the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

At the root of the deadly drug epidemic are the overprescribing of opioid painkillers for conditions ranging from severe back pain and arthritis to sports injuries.

The crisis, which Donald Trump declared a “public health emergency” last year – dates back to the 1990s when healthcare organisations encouraged doctors to treat postoperative pain more aggressively. Soon afterwards drug companies, led by Purdue, started marketing opioids for all kinds of chronic pain, enticing doctors with incentives and all-expenses-paid trips.

Another drugmaker, Endo International, pulled its Opana ER painkiller off the market in July after the US regulator, the Food and Drug Administration, requested the withdrawal.

Purdue and other drugmakers have been fighting a barrage of litigation by states, counties and cities that have accused them of aggressively pushing addictive painkillers.

The lawsuits have accused Purdue of playing down OxyContin’s addiction risk and of misleading marketing that overstated the benefits of opioids for treating chronic, rather than short-term, pain.

At least 14 states are suing the company. Steve Marshall, the attorney general for Alabama, filed a lawsuit on behalf of the state last week. Purdue is also facing a federal investigation by the US attorney’s office in Connecticut.

Purdue has denied the allegations. It has said its drugs were approved by the FDA and account for only 2% of all opioid prescriptions.

In 2007, the company and three executives pleaded guilty to federal charges related to the misbranding of OxyContin and agreed to pay $634.5m to resolve a US Justice Department investigation.