Greed with OxyContin is NOT Good

© Linda Bucklin | 123rf.com

The health insurer Cigna announced that effective January 1, 2018, it will no longer cover OxyContin as a preferred medication. The company is in the process of notifying customers with current OxyContin prescriptions and their doctors of the upcoming change. Individuals who have begun using OxyContin for hospice care or cancer treatments will continue to be covered through 2018. If a doctor believes the use of OxyContin is medically necessary, Cigna will consider approving coverage. Needless to say, Purdue Pharmacy, the manufacturer of OxyContin, disagrees with the Cigna decision.

Cigna will offer an oxycodone equivalent medication with abuse deterrent properties, Xtampza ER with Collegium Pharmaceuticals. Collegium signed a “value-based contract” with Cigna, which will hold the company financially accountable if average daily dosage strengths of Xtampza ER prescribed for Cigna customers exceed a specific threshold. If the threshold is exceeded, Collegium will reduce the cost of the medication. “Linking financial terms to dosage metrics may encourage more education to prevent overprescribing.”

The Fix reported a Purdue spokesperson said there were few differences between OxyContin and Xtampza ER. “Unfortunately, Cigna’s decision limits the tools prescribers can use to help address the opioid crisis as both products are formulated with properties designed to deter abuse.” Cigna responded by saying the point is to change prescription practices. “The insurer hopes that doctors will begin to prescribe drugs like Xtampza ER ‘in lesser quantities and for lesser amounts of time.’”

Cigna’s decision comes in the midst of increasing pressure on Purdue Pharmacy for their aggressive, and at times illegal marketing practices of OxyContin. The pharmaceutical company came under scrutiny partly because of a series of investigative reports by the LA Times that noted a series of issues. The issues including how Purdue Pharma knew pain relief with OxyContin did not last the 12 hours as it claimed; but the company continued to insist the drug did last, in part, to protect its revenue. When doctors complained about the duration, Purdue instructed them to prescribe stronger, not more frequent doses. “OxyContin’s market dominance and premium price hinge on its 12-hour duration.” Purdue allegedly knew of this issue for more than twenty years.

For years, Purdue Pharma lied to federal regulators and the public about the addictiveness of OxyContin and countless patients got hooked on this deadly painkiller. We need to know if Purdue once again lied about the longevity of OxyContin’s pain-relieving properties and hold Purdue accountable.

Additionally, Purdue knew OxyContin was being overprescribed and illegally trafficked, but in many cases, did nothing about it. With one such operation, Lake Medical, Purdue did not stop supplying OxyContin and did not tell authorities what it knew for several years until the clinic was out of business and its leader indicted. By that time, 1.1 million pills has been put on the street.

A Los Angeles Times investigation found that, for more than a decade, Purdue collected extensive evidence suggesting illegal trafficking of OxyContin and, in many cases, did not share it with law enforcement or cut off the flow of pills. A former Purdue executive, who monitored pharmacies for criminal activity, acknowledged that even when the company had evidence pharmacies were colluding with drug dealers, it did not stop supplying distributors selling to those stores.

In 2015 Kentucky received $24 million from Purdue to settle the state’s 2007 against the company over their allegedly illegal promotion of OxyContin. As is usual in cases where pharmaceutical companies settle outside of court, they requested the records gathered in the court case be sealed and destroyed. In this case, there were 17 million pages of documents, including a deposition of Dr. Richard Sackler, the former president of Purdue Pharma and a member of the family who owns the privately held company. As part of the agreement, the Kentucky attorney general destroyed its copies of the documents provided by Purdue. However, copies of several key documents, including the Sackett deposition, filed under seal at the Pike County court, were not destroyed.

STAT News learned of the existence of these documents and filed a motion in March of 2016 to unseal the documents. In May of 2016 a Kentucky judge ordered that the documents be unsealed by June 12th. The judge said he would stay the release of the records if there was an appeal filed before then.  As of June of 2017, the documents were still not released. Purdue appealed the ruling to the Kentucky Court of appeals and although the appeals court said it expected to rule on the matter by the end of August, there was still no announcement by the middle of October.

The President of the Kentucky state Senate planned to file a motion to support the efforts by STAT to unseal the documents, saying that shielding the records from public view was “inappropriate.” He acknowledged his request to intervene could be unsuccessful, and it seems that it was. He thought the documents could help evaluate whether the $24 million payment from Purdue was a good settlement for Kentucky. “Two prior attorneys general valued the case at between $100 million and $1 billion.” Senate President Robert Stivers was concerned the state settled for “pennies on the dollar.”

Purdue was already pivoting to go overseas with its marketing strategy by 2011. With the growing concern over the opioid crisis in the U.S. and the awareness of the role OxyContin played in it, prescriptions fell by almost 40% since 2010, meaning billions in lost revenue for Purdue. Again, the LA Times documented this market expansion by Purdue in a December 2016 article, “OxyContin Goes Global.” Using a network of international companies owned by the Sackler family, Purdue Pharma is moving rapidly into Latin America, Asia, the Middle East, Africa and other regions. “In this global drive, the companies known as Mundipharma, are using some of the same controversial marketing practices that made OxyContin a pharmaceutical blockbuster in the U.S.”

In 2011, operations were started in China, Russia, Turkey, Hong Kong and South Africa. 2013 saw activity in Indonesia, Vietnam, Thailand and Taiwan. Dubai, Brazil, Columbia and Spain came on board in 2014. Lebanon and Portugal opened operations in 2015; Argentina in 2016. Chile, Ecuador, Peru, Uruguay and Venezuela plan to launch operations in the near future.  There is an interactive map on “OxyContin Goes Global” that graphically illustrates this expansion.

In Brazil, China and elsewhere, the companies are running training seminars where doctors are urged to overcome “opiophobia” and prescribe painkillers. They are sponsoring public awareness campaigns that encourage people to seek medical treatment for chronic pain. They are even offering patient discounts to make prescription opioids more affordable.

Like the initial marketing of OxyContin in the U. S., some Mundipharma representatives and promotional material minimize the risks that patients will become addicted to opioid medications. While U.S. public health officials were warning of the growing pain killer threat in 2015, a Mundipharma executive in Seoul South Korea was saying doctors there worry too much about addiction: “Many studies have shown that it’s almost impossible for those with chronic or severe pain to become addicted to narcotics, as long as the drug is used for pain relief.” The opioid problem in the U.S. is said to be largely due to recreational abuse of the drugs.

“That is exactly the same thing they were teaching U.S. physicians when they launched OxyContin in this country,” said Sharon Walsh, an addiction expert who advises the FDA on risks from pain medications.

Mundipharma uses consultants (referred to as thought leaders in the U.S.), as did Purdue and other pharma companies, to overcome this opiophobia among doctors reluctant to prescribe narcotics. Top company officials have said their success in new markets depends on defeating this mind-set.

In Spain, Mundipharma used a series of actors, musicians and models in a campaign against chronic pain. “Ebélate contra el dolor (Rebel against the pain).” The ads did not recommend a specific medication, but urged viewers to seek out a healthcare professional (call your doctor?).  “The campaign is part of a strategy to redefine back pain, joint aches and other common conditions as a distinct malady — chronic pain — that doctors and patients should take seriously.” Mundipharma sales were up seven-fold since 2007.

Around the world, Mundipharma companies cite statistics suggesting there is a great unmet need for their products. Opening an office in Mexico in 2014, Mundipharma officials declared that 28 million citizens were suffering from chronic pain. In Brazil, the company cited a figure of 80 million. In Colombia last year, a company news release said 47% of the population — about 22 million people — were afflicted by ‘this silent epidemic.’”

Meanwhile, back in the US, the lawsuits against Purdue Pharma just keep on coming. In May of 2017 the NYT reported Purdue and three current and former executives pleaded guilty in federal court to criminal charges “that they misled regulators, doctors and patients” about the drug’s addiction risk and potential for abuse. In order to resolve criminal and civil charges stemming from the drug’s “misbranding,” Purdue agreed to pay $600 million, one of the largest amount ever paid by a drug company in such cases. Three executives, including its president and its top lawyer pleaded guilty as individuals to misbranding, which is a criminal violation. “They agreed to pay a total of $34.5 million in fines.”

Purdue Pharma acknowledged in the court proceeding today that “with the intent to defraud or mislead,” it marketed and promoted OxyContin as a drug that was less addictive, less subject to abuse and less likely to cause other narcotic side effects than other pain medications.

Reuters reported that New Hampshire announced in the beginning of August of 2017 that it was suing Purdue for engaging in deceptive marketing practices. The lawsuit followed similar cases against Purdue and other pharmaceutical companies by Oklahoma, Mississippi, Ohio and Missouri and several cities and counties in California, Illinois, Ohio, Oregon, Tennessee and New York.

A week later, South Carolina filed suit against Purdue Pharma, according to Reuters. Again the company is accused of unfair and deceptive marketing of opioid painkillers. South Carolina had been part of a 2007 settlement when Purdue and three executives pleaded guilty to federal charges of misbranding OxyContin. In the August 2017 lawsuit, “South Carolina claimed that since the 2007 settlement, Purdue has continued to engage in misleading opioid marketing practices rather than reforming them to conform with the law.”

In the 1987 movie Wall Street, Michael Douglas as Gordon Gekko famously said, “Greed, for lack of a better word, is good.”  He went on to claim that greed captured the essence of the evolutionary spirit. “In all of its forms; greed for life, for money, for love, knowledge has marked the upward surge of mankind.” At the end of his speech, he was applauded. The greed of Purdue Pharma and the Sackett family, which privately owns Purdue Pharma and OxyContin, is not good. Their unrestrained greed has contributed to the current opioid epidemic in the U.S., despite the denials of the company. And now they want to export the same drug and marketing strategy to the world.


The Tale of the OxyContin Lie

© Jaroslaw Kilian | 123rf..com

© Jaroslaw Kilian | 123rf..com

To tell the tale of OxyContin, we should start with the Sackler family, named by Forbes Magazine as the 16th richest family in the U.S. for 2015 with an estimated net worth of $14 billion dollars. The Sacklers own 100% of Purdue Pharma, which generated more than $3 billion in sales for 2015, most of which came from OxyContin.  Separate Sackler-owned companies outside the U.S. with a similar product profile were said to generate as much money in sales to Europe, Canada, Asia and Latin America. In 2007 Purdue Pharma paid $600 million to settle charges it misbranded OxyContin as safer and less addictive than it actually was. Currently, Purdue faces a civil lawsuit in Kentucky with the potential to exceed $1 billion in damages. But I am getting ahead of the story. It all begins with the traditional American success story of an immigrant family who came to America in the early 20th century.

Isaac Sackler immigrated from what is now the Ukraine and Sophie Sackler came from Poland. They ran a grocery in Brooklyn and had three sons: Arthur (1913-1987), Mortimer (1916-2010) and Raymond (1920-). All three brothers became psychiatrists. Arthur Sackler was said by the New Yorker to be the “founder” of modern pharmaceutical advertising. His thinking inspired the marketing strategy that would be applied to Oxycontin after his death. The brothers bought a small drug manufacturer in 1952 that would eventually become Purdue Pharma, L.P.

Purdue Pharma initially sold products like laxatives and earwax remover. Then in 1972, the Contin® controlled drug-release system was developed. In 1987, MS Contin®, a controlled release morphine formula was launched. In 1991 Purdue Pharma L.P. was formed, with a focus on pain management. It currently manufactures pain medicines containing hydromorphone, oxycodone, fentanyl, codeine and hydrocodone. In 1993 Purdue established Partners Against Pain® to help alleviate unnecessary suffering of chronic pain care through education. Then in 1996, Purdue launched OxyContin®. In 2010 the reformulated version of OxyContin® was launched. In 2010 the company launched the Butrans® Transdermal system, a buprenorphine-based pain reliever. In 2012 it launched the Intermezzo® sublingual tablet. In 2015 Purdue launched Hysingla® ER, extended release hydrocodone tablets. Also in 2015, Purdue launched TeamAgainstOpioidAbuse.com.

The Contin® controlled drug-release system was marketed as having the potential to minimize or stymie abuse concerns with oxycodone by spreading the drugs effects over 12 hours. Before OxyContin®, oxycodone had only been used for pain relief with cancer patients. “Not long after OxyContin’s launch in 1995, primary-care doctors were prescribing it for an array of painful symptoms.” Mortimer Sackler’s obituary in the New York Times said that by 2001, sales of OxyContin had reached almost $3 billion and accounted for 80% of the Purdue Pharma revenue.

But OxyContin wasn’t as abuse-resistant as it claimed. Reporting for Forbes, Alex Morrell described how the pills could be crushed and the time release mechanism neutralized. Then the drug could be snorted (or dissolved in water and injected) for a heroin-like high. I’ve thought for years that the FDA should have a panel of opioid addicts review every newly proposed abuse-resistant pain medication to brainstorm about possible ways to work around the abuse-resistant technology. The company finally reformulated OxyContin in 2010, which has been speculated by some as contributing to the migration of prescription opioid users to the cheaper and more used heroin.

In 2007 Purdue Pharma, its president, top lawyer and former chief medical officer pleaded guilty to misleading the public about the drug’s risk of addiction. They agreed to pay a total of $635 million in fines. CNBC reported the plea agreement came two days after Purdue agreed to pay $19.5 million to 26 states and the District of Columbia to settle complaints the company had encouraged physicians to overprescribe OxyContin. The state of Kentucky launched an independent lawsuit against Purdue in 2007 alleging false marketing, which is just now coming before a judge. It has the potential for over $1 billion in damages.

Purdue learned from focus groups with physicians in 1995 that doctors were worried about the abuse potential of OxyContin. The company then gave false information to its sales representatives that the drug had less potential for addiction and abuse than other painkillers, the U.S. attorney said.

The LA Times did an investigation of Purdue Pharma and OxyContin and just recently printed their findings. They began by pointing out Purdue Pharma made a bold claim with OxyContin—that it would relieve pain for 12 hours, “more than twice as long as generic medications.” But it seems that for many people, the drug does not last that long and that Purdue knew it. “Even before OxyContin went on the market, clinical trials showed many patients weren’t getting 12 hours of relief.” Since the launch in 1996, Purdue was confronted with additional evidence from a variety of sources, including complaints from doctors, independent research and even reports from its own sales reps.

But Purdue persisted in its claim that OxyContin provided 12-hours of pain relief. It’s high price and huge market was based on this claim. “Without that, it offers little advantage over less expensive painkillers.” When doctors began prescribing OxyContin at shorter intervals than 12 hours, Purdue sent out sales reps to “refocus” doctors on 12-hour dosing. They suggested the doctors prescribe stronger doses, not more frequent ones. But this has the potential to increase the possibility of overdose and death.

Over the last 20 years, more than 7 million Americans have abused OxyContin, according to the federal government’s National Survey on Drug Use and Health. The drug is widely blamed for setting off the nation’s prescription opioid epidemic, which has claimed more than 190,000 lives from overdoses involving OxyContin and other painkillers since 1999.

The LA Times reviewed internal Purdue documents in its investigation spanning three decades, from the conception of OxyContin in the mid-1980s to 2011. The documents painted a clear picture of the development and marketing of OxyContin, how Purdue responded to the complaints about its product, “and their fears about the financial impact of any departure from 12-hour dosing.” Experts said the withdrawal symptoms from OxyContin’s less than 12-hours pain relief, followed by the next 12-hour dose created a cycle of pain and euphoria that fostered addiction. Theodore Cicero, a neuropharmacologist, and researcher into how opioids effect the brain, said this was “the perfect recipe for addiction.”

Now let’s return to the late 1980s. The patent for MS Contin, Purdue’s main source of income, was running out. Executives expected a significant drop in income when the patent ran out. A 1990 memo read: “MS Contin may eventually face such serious generic competition that other controlled-release opioids must be considered.” So they decided to use the Contin technology on oxycodone. Over the next ten years, the company put over $40 million into developing OxyContin.

Multiple clinical trials indicated that OxyContin wasn’t giving 12-hour pain relief. “In study after study, many patients given OxyContin every 12 hours would ask for more medication before their next scheduled dose.” This even happened in the study ultimately used by Purdue to get OxyContin approved as a 12-hour pain relief drug. The official who led the FDA’s review of OxyContin left the agency shortly after the drug’s approval. Within two years, he was working for Purdue in new product development.

Before Oxcontin, doctors were hesitant to prescribe narcotic painkillers, seeing them as dangerously addictive. Through organizations like Partners Against Pain doctors were re-educated to “alleviate the unnecessary suffering of chronic pain.” Before the drug’s debut, the minutes of a 1995 meeting indicated a Purdue marketing executive said: “We do not want to niche OxyContin just for cancer pain.” Sales reps urged doctors to try OxyContin with common conditions like backaches and knee pain. “The company invited doctors to dinner seminars and flew them to weekend junkets at resort hotels, where they were encouraged to prescribe OxyContin and promote it to colleagues back home.”

Then came the 2007 lawsuits. Curiously, in all the inquiries into Purdue and OxyContin, the short acting problem was not looked at. Purdue drug reps reported that doctors said the drug didn’t last and many were prescribing it for use three or four times a day. Company officials worried that if OxyContin wasn’t seen as a 12-hour drug, hospitals and insurance companies would resist paying its premium price. So they trained sales reps to convince doctors OxyContin provided 12-hour pain relief. “Purdue held closed-door meetings to retrain its sales force on the importance of 12-hour dosing, according to training documents.”

If a doctor complained that OxyContin didn’t last, Purdue reps were to recommend increasing the strength of the dose rather than the frequency. There is no ceiling on the amount of OxyContin a patient can be prescribed, sales reps were to remind doctors, according to the presentation and other training materials.

There’s more to see in the LA Times article, but you get the sense of the issue. Purdue Pharma responded to the LA Times report, saying it was “long on anecdotes and short on facts.” And it was based on a “long-discredited theory.” They said scientific evidence amassed over more than 20 years supports the FDA’s approval of 12-hour dosing for OxyContin. “The OxyContin label has been updated more than 30 times and at no point did FDA request a change to the dosing frequency.” By the way the medication guide for OxyContin says: “Take your prescribed dose every 12 hours at the same time every day. Do not take more than your prescribed dose in 12 hours. If you miss a dose, take your next dose at your usual time.”

None of the Sackler family has ever been charged in the litigation against Purdue. These days, the family is not involved in the day-to-day running of the company. Throughout their history they have been philanthropic, with donations resulting in the Sackler Library at Oxford University; the Sackler Faculty of Medicine in Tel Aviv, Israel; the Sackler Institute of Biomedical Science at New York University; and the Sackler School of Graduate Biomedical Sciences at Tufts University. But the Sacklers may not be able to be as generous if they lose a major chunk of their $14 billion fortune. A Kentucky judge has ordered the unsealing of secret documents about the marketing of OxyContin in June of 2016, according to STAT.  But that’s a tale for another time.