The maker of the powerful painkiller OxyContin said it will stop marketing opioid drugs to doctors, bowing to a key demand of lawsuits that blame the company for helping trigger the current drug abuse epidemic.
OxyContin has long been the world’s top-selling opioid painkiller, bringing in billions of dollars for privately held Purdue.
Purdue’s statement said it eliminated more than half its sales staff last week and will no longer send sales representatives to doctors’ offices to discuss opioid drugs.
The OxyContin time-release pill was a breakthrough for relieving chronic pain when introduced in 1995. But some users discovered they could get a heroin-like high by crushing the pills and snorting or injecting an entire dose at once. In 2010 Purdue reformulated OxyContin to make it harder to crush.
Purdue eventually acknowledged that its promotions exaggerated the drug’s safety and minimized the risks of addiction. The company and three executives pleaded guilty in 2007 for misleading the public and agreed to pay more than $600 million.
Andrew Kolodny, codirector of opioid policy research at Brandeis University and an advocate for stronger regulation of opioid drug companies, said Purdue’s decision is helpful but won’t make a major difference unless other companies follow suit.
Allergan, which makes three opioid medications, said it has not actively marketed those drugs in years, and Janssen Pharmaceuticals, a unit of Johnson & Johnson, said it stopped marketing the medications in 2015. Both said opioid drugs make up a very small portion of total revenue.
Kolodny said opioids are useful for cancer patients who are suffering from severe pain and for people who need a pain medication for only a few days. But he said the companies have promoted them as a treatment for chronic pain, where they are more harmful and less helpful, because it’s more profitable.
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