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What Did Big Pharma Executives Know About The Opioid Crisis?

Darren McCollester/Getty Images

Over the past two decades, more than 200,000 people have died in the United States from overdoses involving prescription opioids like OxyContin.

Barry Meier was one of the first reporters to cover this epidemic. And in his latest story, Meier reports on a Justice Department investigation that found Purdue Pharma executives were aware of the addictive properties of two opioids, OxyContin and MS Contin, yet continued to advertise the drugs as less addictive than counterparts like Vicodin and Percocet.

Company officials had received reports that the pills were being crushed and snorted; stolen from pharmacies; and that some doctors were being charged with selling prescriptions, according to dozens of previously undisclosed documents that offer a detailed look inside Purdue Pharma. But the drug maker continued “in the face of this knowledge” to market OxyContin as less prone to abuse and addiction than other prescription opioids, prosecutors wrote in 2006.

A spokesman for Purdue Pharma declined to comment on the allegations in the report but released a statement saying that “suggesting that activities that last occurred more than 16 years ago are responsible for today’s complex and multifaceted opioid crisis is deeply flawed.” (Read their full statement below)

Justice Department prosecutors at the time recommended that three Purdue Pharma executives be indicted on felony charges, but the case was settled in 2007 during the George W. Bush administration. With the conclusion of this case in mind, is justice for sale? Could charges for these executives have put the brakes on an opioid epidemic that was just picking up steam?

Read Meier’s whole story here.

Here is Purdue Pharma’s statement:

Purdue Pharma is committed to addressing the opioid crisis as we support a number of public health policies that are designed to stem the tide of opioid-related addiction and limit prescribing.

Suggesting activities that last occurred more than 16 years ago, which the company accepted responsibility, are contributing 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% of current opioid prescriptions. As government reports state, today’s increase of fatal opioid-related overdoses is being driven by abuse of heroin and illicit fentanyl.

For more than 15 years we’ve led industry efforts to help address prescription opioid abuse which includes developing medications with abuse-deterrent properties; funding state prescription drug monitoring programs; working with law enforcement to help with accessing naloxone; and sponsoring educational initiatives aimed at teenagers warning of the dangers of opioids. We recognize that more needs to be done and we continue to pursue a range of solutions that will have a meaningful impact to help address this national public health crisis.


Barry Meier, Former staff reporter and Pulitzer Prize winner, The New York Times; two-time winner of the George Polk Award; author of “Pain Killer: An Empire of Deceit and the Origin of America’s Opioid Epidemic”; @BarryMeier

For more, visit https://the1a.org.

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