Bombshell Report: Purdue Pharma Knew Years Ago OxyContin Was Addictive

LifeZette hears from a pharmacist, mugged twice for the drug, about what Americans can learn from the latest information on the painkiller

In the face of the devastating losses so many families have suffered from opioid addiction, the latest bombshell about Purdue Pharma’s culpability in the continued misuse of OxyContin will cause shock and anger, no doubt.

As a report in The New York Times earlier this week made clear, “A copy of a confidential Justice Department report shows that federal prosecutors investigating the company found that Purdue Pharma knew about ‘significant’ abuse of OxyContin in the first years after the drug’s introduction in 1996, and concealed that information.”

The Times piece went on: “Company officials had received reports that the pills were being crushed and snorted; stolen from pharmacies; and that some doctors were being charged with selling prescriptions, according to dozens of previously undisclosed documents that offer a detailed look inside Purdue Pharma.”

Yet, the article added, “The drug maker continued, ‘in the face of this knowledge,’ to market OxyContin as less prone to abuse and addiction than other prescription opioids, prosecutors wrote in 2006.”

Based in Stamford, Connecticut, Purdue Pharma is a privately held company founded by the Sackler brothers, and the maker of the popular and highly addictive prescription painkiller OxyContin.

The drug was released in 1995 and hailed as a medical breakthrough that could help patients suffering from moderate to severe pain.

To date, the drug has reportedly generated some $35 billion in revenue for Purdue, according to reporting from The New Yorker.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says that drug overdoses killed 63,632 Americans in 2016, of which about two-thirds (66 percent) involved a prescription or illicit opioid.

Equally worrisome, since 1999, some 200,000 Americans have died from overdoses related to OxyContin and other prescription opioids.

While this latest news may come as shock to some, others are unfazed.

“I am not surprised by the new revelations,” George Hatziantoniou, a Seattle-based community pharmacist, told Lifezette. “A for-profit company will do what is necessary to maximize profits and shareholder value, and minimize or eliminate any threat to its bottom line.”

Hatziantoniou, who has practiced pharmacy in Manhattan and currently works in Seattle, Washington, has been on the front lines of the opioid crisis and witnessed firsthand its devastating effects.

To date, he has been robbed twice at work at gunpoint by armed addicts hoping for a big score of prescription pain meds — such as the popular OxyContin — a Schedule II narcotic and opiate. He is hopeful that some good may emerge from the bombshell report in The Times.

“It could reopen the government’s case against Purdue Pharma, and also result in harsher penalties on drug executives going forward, including longer jail sentences, which would help deter other pharmaceutical companies from repeating Purdue’s actions,” Hatziantoniou said. “Additionally, it could help to increase even more public awareness of the dangers of prescription pain medications, and give more authority to the DEA [Drug Enforcement Agency] and more muscle to the Controlled Substances Act.”

Devoted to the pharmacy profession, Hatziantoniou also noted there is lots of blame to go around, especially because OxyContin has been classified a Schedule II drug for eons — meaning it has tremendous potential for addiction.

“Government agencies that are responsible for protecting patient safety should have acted sooner, faster, and more stringently, as the opioid crisis, which is now a full-blown epidemic, was unfolding.”

“Prescribers should have known better, regardless of the marketing tactics of Purdue Pharma, that patients would become addicted after being prescribed the drug repeatedly,” he emphasized. “Only drugs like heroin and marijuana, which are classified as Schedule I, have greater addiction liability.”

He added, “Government agencies that are responsible for protecting patient safety should have acted sooner, faster, and more stringently, as the opioid crisis, which is now a full-blown epidemic, was unfolding. Patients should also realize when they take more and more of the same drug and their pain is still not being alleviated that something is wrong — and to question their doctor.”

A Purdue representative issued a somewhat tone-deaf statement in the wake of the opioid devastation across America.

“Suggesting activities that last occurred more than 16 years ago, for which the company accepted responsibility, helped contribute to today’s complex and multi-faceted opioid crisis is deeply flawed,” company representative Robert Josephson said in an email statement provided to Business Insider. “The bulk of opioid prescriptions are not, and have never been for OxyContin, which represents less than 2 percent of current opioid prescriptions. As government reports state, today’s increase of fatal opioid-related overdoses is being driven by abuse of heroin and illicit fentanyl.”

Related: Oxycontin Maker Will No Longer Promote Opioids to Doctors

As for the Sackler brothers, Purdue Pharma’s original owners (descendants of the brothers are now principal owners): If you’ve ever visited the Temple of Dendur at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, in all likelihood, you’ve come across their family name.

Since 1978, the Sackler Wing at the Met has been recognized in the art world as one of the most celebrated museum spaces in New York City. It’s named after Arthur Sackler, a psychiatrist turned advertising executive who was instrumental in shaping promotion practices in the pharmaceutical industry — and his brothers, Mortimer and Raymond.

More and more, however, the Sackler name is inextricably linked to the devastating opioid crisis blighting urban centers, rural communities, and even our suburbs nationwide.

Elizabeth Economou is a former CNBC staff writer and adjunct professor. Follow her on Twitter.