Purdue Pharma left almost nothing to chance in its whirlwind marketing of its new painkiller OxyContin.
From 1996 to 2002, Purdue pursued nearly every avenue in the drug supply and prescription sales chain — a strategy now cast as reckless and illegal in more than 1,500 federal civil lawsuits from communities in Florida to Wisconsin to California that allege the drug has fueled a national epidemic of addiction.
Kaiser Health News is releasing years of Purdue’s internal budget documents and other records to offer readers a chance to evaluate how the privately held Connecticut company spent hundreds of millions of dollars to launch and promote the drug, a trove of information made publicly available here for the first time.
All of these internal Purdue records were obtained from a Florida attorney general’s office investigation of Purdue’s sales efforts that ended late in 2002.
I have had copies of those records in my basement for years. I was a reporter at the South Florida Sun Sentinel, which, along with the Orlando Sentinel, won a court battle to force the attorney general to release the company files in 2003. At the time, the Sun-Sentinel was writing extensively about a growing tide of deaths from prescription drugs such as OxyContin.
We drew on the marketing files to write two articles, including one that exposed possible deceptive marketing of the drug. Now, given the disastrous arc of prescription drug abuse over the past decade and the stream of suits being filed — more than a dozen on some days — it seemed time for me to share these seminal documents that reveal the breadth and detail of Purdue’s efforts.
Asked by Kaiser Health News for comment on the OxyContin marketing files and the suits against the company, Purdue Pharma spokesman Robert Josephson issued a statement that reads in part:
“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. The bulk of opioid prescriptions are not, and have never been, for OxyContin, which represents less than 2 percent of current opioid prescriptions.”
The marketing files show that about 75 percent of more than $400 million in promotional spending occurred after the start of 2000, the year Purdue officials told Congress they learned of growing OxyContin abuse and drug-related deaths from media reports and regulators. These internal Purdue marketing records show the drugmaker financed activities across nearly every quarter of medicine, from awarding grants to health care groups that set standards for opioid use to reminding reluctant pharmacists how they could profit from stocking OxyContin pills on their shelves.
Purdue bought more than $18 million worth of advertising in major medical journals that cheerily touted OxyContin. Some of the ads, federal officials said in 2003, “grossly overstated” the drug’s safety.
The Purdue records show that the company poured more than $8 million into a website and venture called “Partners Against Pain,” which helped connect patients to doctors willing to treat their pain, presumably with OxyContin or other opioids.
It made and distributed 14,000 copies of a video that claimed opioids caused addiction in fewer than 1 percent of patients, a claim Food and Drug Administration officials later said “has not been substantiated.”
Purdue hoped to grow into one of the nation’s top 10 drug companies, both in sales and “image or professional standing,” according to the documents; OxyContin was the means to that end.
Purdue first marketed the drug for cancer pain but planned to expand that use to meet its multimillion-dollar sales goals. In 1998, the market for treating cancer with opioids stood at $261 million, compared with $1.3 billion for treating other types of pain, the Purdue reports note.
Purdue’s OxyContin sales objectives were clearly stated in the earliest marketing plan in the records, for 1996. It sought $25 million in sales and to generate 205,000 prescriptions. By the next year, its goals had tripled: $77.9 million in sales and to generate 600,000 prescriptions.
Purdue bombarded doctors and other health workers with literature and sales calls. Records show that in 1997 the company budgeted $300,000 for mailings to doctors who prescribed opioids liberally, based on sales data that drug companies purchase. The mailers recommended OxyContin for “pain syndromes,” including osteoarthritis and back pain. It added $75,000 for mailings “to keep in touch with our best customers for OxyContin to ensure they continue prescribing it.”
Sales agents made thousands of visits to general practice doctors and others who had little training or experience using potent opioids, according to a 2003 Government Accountability Office audit. The OxyContin slogan in 1999 was: “The One to Start With and the One to Stay With.” OxyContin earned Purdue about $2.8 billion in revenue from the start of 1996 through June 2001, according to the Justice Department.
In May 2000, Purdue’s hope to conquer the arthritis market hit a snag when the FDA criticized an ad for OxyContin in the New England Journal of Medicine. The FDA said the ad, which Purdue Pharma agreed to stop using, overstated the drug’s benefits for treating all types of arthritis without pointing out risks.
News reports of abuse and overdose deaths also were surfacing. Purdue’s 2001 marketing document noted that OxyContin had “experienced significant challenges” the year before because of abuse and unlawful diversion in Maine, Ohio, Virginia, Louisiana and Florida.
OxyContin pills contain oxycodone, an opioid as potent as morphine and maybe more so. Abusers quickly figured out they could crush the pills and snort or inject the dust
In response, Purdue’s 2001 marketing budget included funding to help doctors recognize patients who were in need of “substance abuse counseling” and do more to “prevent abuse and diversion.” It added $1.2 million in spending for what it called “anti-diversion” efforts in 2002, according to the internal records.