In 2007, three executives with the U.S. pharmaceutical company Purdue Pharma, which manufactures the synthetic opioid painkiller OxyContin, pleaded guilty to misleading the public about the risks of addiction from the drug. The company paid $600 million in fines and the executives paid an additional $34.5 million.
The company was found to have misled doctors and patients over a period of five years by claiming that OxyContin is less addictive than other narcotic painkillers because of its long-acting time-released formula. The executives continue to battle a provision of the plea bargain that banned them from doing business with Medicare or other taxpayer-funded healthcare for 12 years. Meanwhile, even as the company faces other litigation, including class-action lawsuits from patients who became addicted to the drug, sales are soaring. In 2010, sales of OxyContin topped an eyepopping $3.5 billion.
If all this sounds familiar, it should. The rapid rise of OxyContin and other oxycodone-containing painkillers bears a striking resemblance to the history of tobacco – from the official denials, even coverups, of its addictive properties by producers, to its devastating impact on public health.
But, while tobacco use has steadily declined in recent decades largely as a result of tough prohibitions and controls that have helped change behaviour, OxyContin use is spreading like a many-headed hydra.
OxyContin could well be a tougher problem to tackle than tobacco: It is highly addictive and it serves a legitimate purpose for people with chronic pain, which means it will continue to be in use, which will make it difficult to keep away from addicts.
But the biggest barrier facing real control of OxyContin is political will.