By David Z. Morris
February 11, 2018

Purdue Pharma will no longer target U.S. doctors in its efforts to sell OxyContin, a prescription opioid whose overprescription fueled America’s opioid crisis — and made billions for Purdue’s founding family.

As reported by the Wall Street Journal, Purdue will continue selling the drug, but will no longer send salespeople to doctors’ offices to promote it. Purdue will cut its U.S. sales staff by more than half.

The move comes as opioid addiction continues to take a devastating toll on large swathes of the United States. Deaths from drug overdoses accelerated sharply in 2016 and 2017, and are now the leading cause of death among Americans under 50. Many of those overdoses are attributed to other opioids, including fentanyl and heroin, which OxyContin users often switch to after becoming addicted to the painkiller.

The boom in OxyContin prescriptions, and the resulting expansion of the deadly abuse of opioids, has been consistently blamed on Purdue’s aggressive and misleading marketing of the drug. Purdue for years made the case that OxyContin was less addictive than other opioid painkillers, and that the risks of opioid addiction in general were overblown — claims partly rooted in a decades-old anecdotal letter rather than scientific research.

In 2007, Purdue Pharma and three of its executives pleaded guilty to criminal charges of misrepresenting their product’s addictiveness, and paid a total of $635 million in fines.

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Purdue’s decision to entirely stop marketing the drug in the U.S. comes amid a new wave of legal action, reminiscent of the legal campaign against tobacco companies in the 1990s. States including Montana, New Jersey, and Alabama , as well as some cities, have sued Purdue, claiming that the opioid epidemic has reduced lifespans and caused massive social and economic damage. Costs of opioid addiction to the U.S. economy have been estimated to be as high as $78.5 billion.

Growing awareness of Purdue’s handling of OxyContin has also recently attracted scrutiny of the Sacklers, the family that controls the privately held firm. The Sacklers’ philanthropy has left their name prominently displayed across dozens of museums and universities, but they have carefully avoided public association with OxyContin, which reportedly generated the bulk of their wealth.

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