A confidential report reveals that Purdue Pharma knew OxyContin was being abused within the first few years after it launched

A confidential report reveals that Purdue Pharma knew OxyContin was being abused within the first few years after it launched

A bottle of prescription painkiller OxyContin, 40mg pills, made by Purdue Pharma L.D. sit on a counter at a local pharmacy, in Provo, Utah, U.S., April 25, 2017. REUTERS/George Frey

Thomson Reuters

A bottle of prescription painkiller OxyContin, 40mg pills, made by Purdue Pharma L.D. sit on a counter at a local pharmacy in Provo

  • A New York Times investigation found after uncovering a chain of confidential internal communications that Purdue Pharma knew that its opioid drugs were being abused in 1996 shortly after they came on the market.
  • In 2007, Purdue Pharma pleaded guilty to "misbranding" its drug as less addictive than shorter-lasting painkillers.
  • Earlier in 2018, Purdue said it would cut down its sales force and enforce measures to both reduce the amount of excess drugs in circulation and make drugs with more "abuse-deterrent" properties.

The US is currently in the throes of an opioid crisis.

There were more than 42,000 deaths attributed to opioids in 2016, and 40% of all opioid overdose deaths involve prescription opioids.

One of those prescription opioids, OxyContin, was first introduced to the market in 1996. In the few years following its launch, OxyContin-maker Purdue Pharma received numerous reports and tips that the drug had been circulating in the underground scene and was being widely abused.

Purdue Pharma denied knowing anything about the abuse until the early 2000s, but in a recent New York Times investigation, a confidential Justice Department report showed that the drugmaker was notified by several researchers and knew about the abuse shortly after OxyContin hit the market.


Despite the warnings and complaints, the company concealed such knowledge and continued to market the drug as less appealing to drug abusers and less addictive than normal opioids.

"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," said Purdue representative Robert Josephson in an email statement. "The bulk of opioid prescriptions are not, and have never been for OxyContin, which represents less than 2% 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."

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the "economic burden" of prescription opioid misuse alone in the United States is $78.5 billion a year. The National Institute on Drug Abuse says that the value accounts for costs of healthcare, lost productivity, addiction treatment, and criminal justice involvement.

The prescription drug abuse had its roots in the late 1990s, according to NIDA, when drug companies told the medical community that patients would not become addicted to prescription opioid pain relievers. This caused healthcare providers to prescribe these drugs at a higher rate. Later though, it became evident that opioids like OxyContin were in fact highly addictive and were becoming widely misused.

The Times uncovered a series of internal communication spanning all the way back to 1996 that found Purdue was complicit in overlooking the dangers OxyContin posed. In May 1996, a study was sent to both Purdue's owner and general counsel alerting them about how drug abusers were extracting morphine from the MS Contin tablets. By 1997, Purdue was aware that OxyContin had become a hotly searched topic online and was especially popular in the underground drug scene. At that time, the company also started receiving numerous reports about abuse, addiction and crimes related to the drug. Examples included local newspaper articles about doctors refusing to prescribe more drugs because of high demand, as well as arrests tied to those purchasing the drug illegally.


Without conducting clinical trials, the FDA permitted Purdue in late 1995 to make the claim that its drug "was believed to have" less appeal to abusers based on a theory that drug abusers preferred the "quicker hit" of shorter-lasting painkillers. Purdue proceeded to center its marketing campaign around that statement.

In 2007, Purdue Pharma pleaded guilty to "misbranding" the drug and settled after top Justice Department officials decided not to move forward with felony charges. Purdue admitted that it had "trained sales representative to tell doctors that OxyContin was less addictive and prone to abuse than competing opioids," The Times reported.

In February 2018, the drugmaker said it would cut its sales force in half and cease promotion of opioids to physicians. In a statement posted on Purdue's website, as part of their "multifaceted approach to address the prescription opioid abuse crisis," Purdue said it would take action to reduce opioid abuse by limiting the length of first opioid prescriptions and thinking of ways to make opioids with abuse-deterrent properties, such as making them harder to crush.