Editorial: Purdue’s Bankruptcy: The Rise and Fall of OxyContin

“In the mid 1990s the drug OxyContin was heavily advertised and marketed by Purdue Pharma, a private pharmaceutical company based in Stamford, Connecticut. Purdue marketed OxyContin in 1996 as an effective and relatively ‘safe’ drug for relieving pain.”


OxyContin comes in the form of circular tablets, ranging in dosages from 10mg to 80mg. Credit: Amanda Popovski

Today, OxyContin has achieved the reputation of an opioid with a high risk for addiction and dependency; but this was not always the case. In the mid 1990s the drug OxyContin was heavily advertised and marketed by Purdue Pharma, a private pharmaceutical company based in Stamford, Connecticut. Purdue marketed OxyContin in 1996 as an effective and relatively ‘safe’ drug for relieving pain. According to The American Public Health Association, Purdue’s promotional campaign in brochures, literature, and audiotapes claimed that the risk for addiction was less than one percent, while today OxyContin’s notorious reputation, as well as statistics, is evidence enough to negate this former one percent claim.

OxyContin is categorized as belonging to the drug class of opioids. Opioids, according to the National Institute on Drug Abuse, are a class of drugs that are known for relieving pain, and include heroin, fentanyl, oxycodone (OxyContin), hydrocodone (Vicodin), codeine, morphine, and more. 

Oxycontin’s rise in popularity, and ultimately its contribution to the opioid crisis, was the result of persuasive marketing and false representation of a product. Purdue believed that the drug would not be as addictive as Vicodin or Percocet because of OxyContin’s 12-hour time release tablet. Purdue’s press release from 1996 states that “unlike short-acting pain medicines, which must be taken every three to six hours … OxyContin tablets are taken every 12 hours, providing smooth and sustained pain control all day and all night.”

“The New England Journal of Medicine” stated in 2016 that OxyContin “fails to deliver 12 hours of pain relief in many.” Several studies were conducted and found that OxyContin’s effects wore off before the 12 hour mark in 85% of patients. This led to patients suffering withdrawal symptoms and continued pain, and therefore needing to take the drug earlier and earlier.

Purdue also systematically created profiles on doctors, to determine their prescribing habits and frequency. According to the OxyContin Marketing plan of 1996 to 2001, Purdue gave out bonuses to sales representatives that sold the most in their given areas. As stated in the American Journal of Public Health, naturally salespeople would frequently visit “physicians with high rates of opioid prescriptions” in order to improve their salaries. What they were really selling was a high risk for addiction.

OxyContin’s success, according to Purdue records, accumulated $2.8 billion in revenue from 1995 to 2001. This astronomical amount of money merely emphasizes the large impact this drug had, and continues to have, on hundreds of thousands of lives. 

It is to no surprise that individuals affected by Purdue’s actions want compensation and justice for their consequent physical and emotional pain.
In 2007 The NY Times reported that the top three executives of Purdue Pharma pleaded guilty, and admitted that they had misbranded OxyContin to doctors, regulators, and patients. They ultimately paid a fine of $34.5 million for retribution. 

Purdue Pharma has recently filed for bankruptcy in an attempt that “avoids wasting hundreds of millions of dollars and years on protracted litigation” and “instead will provide billions of dollars and critical resources to communities across the country trying to cope with the opioid crisis” as explained by Steve Miller, the head of Purdue’s board of directors. Purdue has over 2,600 active lawsuits, according to The NY Times. This is problematic for Purdue, because 2,600 cases does not equate to 2,600 people but thousands more, which could be extremely expensive for the company. 

While OxyContin and Purdue’s story runs deep in the veins of greed, one has to ask, how much do these companies care for the public’s well being? According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, “almost 218,000 people died from 1999 to 2017 in the United States from overdoses related to prescription opioids.”

What is our duty as American citizens to those struggling with addiction? Unfortunately, the stigma associated with drug addicts, characterizing them as “junkies,” as though they were junk or a waste, has contributed to the stereotype that drug addiction is a choice. Rather than a choice, addiction, or substance abuse disorders, is more the result of a biologically predisposed individual living in a socially vulnerable environment. 

According to the “American Society of Addiction Medicine,” we now know that addiction is a chronic disease in the brain, and not the choice that many seem to think it is. Individuals can genetically be predisposed to addiction disorders in their family, and if in the correct environment, can be more likely to use drugs or be offered drugs. 

Therefore, it is no surprise that a biologically addictive drug like OxyContin, one that can increase a user’s tolerance and subsequently require higher doses to achieve the same effect, would be abused by individuals who trusted Purdue Pharma and their doctors. 

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *