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By Dr. Michael Pittaro, Faculty Member, Criminal Justice, American Military University
On September 15, 2019, the privately held pharmaceutical company Purdue Pharma filed for bankruptcy after reaching a tentative settlement agreement. The agreement stemmed from several local and state government lawsuits regarding the company’s aggressive sale and marketing of prescription painkiller OxyContin, a drug from which the company has made billions.
According to a recent Associated Press article, “The lawsuits assert that the company aggressively sold OxyContin as a drug with a low risk of addiction despite knowing that wasn’t true.” The governments that are litigating against Purdue Pharma want to be reimbursed for expenses attributed to the opioid crisis, and they have demanded funding for drug treatment intervention and prevention programs.
Purdue Pharma Has Encountered Legal Problems in the Past
This is not the first time that Purdue Pharma has been in the spotlight of the U.S. justice system. In 2007, the company paid one of the largest fines ever levied against a pharmaceutical company for mislabeling OxyContin.
In addition to the significant fine, three of the company’s top executives were found guilty of criminal charges. In response, Purdue Pharma shifted its marketing tactics to focus on abuse-deterrent formulations (ADFs), an approach supported by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA).
However, the FDA has acknowledged that abuse-deterrent formulations are not abuse- or addiction-proof, but rather a step in the right direction toward providing education and awareness to patients and reducing opioid abuse. Despite the significant sanctions imposed in 2007, Purdue Pharma continued to aggressively market and sell OxyContin, which caused the company to become a primary target for state and local prosecutors seeking to redress the harm caused by OxyContin and its contribution to the current opioid abuse epidemic.
Why OxyContin Abuse Has Created an Epidemic
OxyContin is a time-released drug whose effects can last upwards of at least 12 hours. It contains oxycodone hydrochloride, an opioid painkiller.
Oxycodone is typically combined with other ingredients in some medications such as Percocet. But when oxycodone hydrochloride is used alone, it is available in the form of OxyContin.
To put the opioid epidemic in perspective, The New Yorker reported in 2019 that 200,000 Americans have died from overdoses related to OxyContin and other prescription opioids since 1999. However, this statistic does not factor in the number of opioid overdose deaths attributed to illicit opioid street drugs, such as heroin and fentanyl.
Purdue Pharma is known for using high-pressure tactics to persuade doctors into prescribing OxyContin to their patients. As further enticement for doctors, Purdue Pharma “rewarded” those doctors with free trips, paid speaking engagements, and other personal and professional benefits.
A 2018 New York Times article investigating Purdue Pharma concluded that the company was well aware that OxyContin was being widely abused. Furthermore, Purdue Pharma also took the public stance that OxyContin had a lower abuse potential due to its time-release properties. However, there was absolutely no scientific evidence to support those claims.
By 2000, widespread reports of OxyContin abuse had surfaced. In 2003, the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) found that Purdue Pharma’s marketing sales tactics “very much exacerbated OxyContin’s widespread abuse.”
The 2019 New Yorker investigative story found that many addicts could not afford opioid prescriptions and they were difficult to obtain. As a result, those addicts turned to heroin, which resulted in a widespread surge in opioid addiction.
A study conducted by the American Society of Addiction Medicine concluded that four out of five people who have tried heroin started with opioid prescription painkillers. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) has also reported that deaths from prescription painkillers have reached epidemic levels in just the past decade with scant evidence that we are making a positive impact on curtailing this deadly trend.
Purdue Pharma’s Role in Creating the Current Opioid Abuse Epidemic Is Undeniable
As someone who previously served in the addictions field within corrections and as the Executive Director of an outpatient facility prior to pursuing a career in higher education, I wholeheartedly concur with the state and local governments who have chosen to litigate against Purdue Pharma. I am highly confident, based on my education and experience, that OxyContin has certainly exacerbated opioid abuse and dependence in the United States.
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Drug abuse does not discriminate. It crosses into and adversely affects all racial, ethnic, social, cultural, and socioeconomic groups. It is not confined to the poor inner-city impoverished communities as some still naively think, but rather extends into every U.S. community, whether large or small. It is a complex societal problem that requires a complex societal response.
Successfully litigating against Purdue Pharma is undoubtedly a step in the right direction, but it is only a starting point. We still need to increase funding and resources for drug prevention and intervention programs, and we need to delve deeper into the core of addiction by addressing supply and demand, specifically by focusing on the demand for opioids.
Going after the suppliers is undoubtedly important; however, we also need to address the powerful demand for opioids. We must simultaneously tackle the supply and demand for opioids, rather than focusing almost exclusively on the suppliers.
About the Author: Dr. Michael Pittaro is an Associate Professor of Criminal Justice with American Military University and an Adjunct Professor at East Stroudsburg University. Dr. Pittaro is a criminal justice veteran, highly experienced in working with criminal offenders in a variety of institutional and non-institutional settings. Before pursuing a career in higher education, Dr. Pittaro worked in corrections administration. He also served as the Executive Director of an outpatient drug and alcohol facility and as Executive Director of a drug and alcohol prevention agency. Dr. Pittaro has been teaching at the university level (online and on-campus) for the past 15 years while also serving internationally as an author, editor, presenter, and subject matter expert. Dr. Pittaro holds a B.S. in Criminal Justice; an M.P.A. in Public Administration; and a Ph.D. in criminal justice. To contact the author, email IPSauthor@apus.edu. For more articles featuring insight from industry experts, subscribe to In Public Safety’s bi-monthly newsletter.