How Purdue Pharma Hooked the Nation on OxyContin

An expansive investigation from the Los Angeles Times shows how the pharma firm helped birth today’s opioid epidemic.


Pills photo by David K on Flickr/Creative Commons

Chances are you’ve heard of Purdue Pharma. If not, you’ve certainly heard of its blockbuster brainchild, OxyContin, the powerful, addictive pain pill that’s widely considered a root cause of our ongoing opioid epidemic, a crisis that last year claimed more than 1,300 lives in Massachusetts alone.

new investigation from the Los Angeles Times reveals the great lengths to which Purdue has gone to market OxyContin as a 12-hour-long source of pain relief despite abundant evidence that the effects of the drug often wear off within eight hours or fewer. One particular study, in Puerto Rico, was led by Purdue scientists and had “about half” of its participants require more medication before the 12 hour cutoff. Even so, “The study found that OxyContin was safe, relieved pain and lasted longer than the short-acting painkillers.” This, of course, is deeply troubling when considering the addictive nature of pain pills.

The Times piece is both horrifying and infuriating. It weaves information gleaned from thousands of pages of sealed court documents with crushing vignettes of those who have suffered from addiction as a result of the drug.

The article also shows the extent to which the FDA was complacent in allowing the drug to go forward with the 12-hour indication:

To obtain FDA approval, Purdue had to demonstrate that OxyContin was safe and as effective as other pain drugs on the market. Under agency guidelines for establishing duration, the company had to show that OxyContin lasted 12 hours for at least half of patients. Purdue submitted the Puerto Rico study, which showed that.

The FDA approved the application in 1995.

Dr. Curtis Wright, who led the agency’s medical review of the drug, declined to comment for this article. Shortly after OxyContin’s approval, he left the FDA and, within two years, was working for Purdue in new product development, according to his sworn testimony in a lawsuit a decade ago.

The Times asked the FDA for comment on the drug’s failure to provide 12 hours of relief for many patients. Officials at the agency declined to be interviewed.

Other highlights from the piece include a reminder that Attorney General Eric Holder once represented Purdue and numerous examples of how greed drove the company to push pills on doctors.

Before OxyContin, doctors had viewed narcotic painkillers as dangerously addictive and primarily reserved their long-term use for cancer patients and the terminally ill. Purdue envisioned a bigger market.

“We do not want to niche OxyContin just for cancer pain,” a marketing executive explained to employees planning the drug’s debut, according to minutes of the 1995 meeting.