How rival opioid makers sought to cash in on alarm over OxyContin’s dangers

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As Purdue Pharma faced mounting criticism over deaths linked to OxyContin, rival drugmakers saw a chance to boost sales by stepping up marketing of similarly dangerous painkillers, such as fentanyl, morphine and methadone, Purdue internal documents reveal.

Purdue’s 1996-2002 marketing plans for OxyContin, which Kaiser Health News made public this year for the first time, offer an unprecedented look at how that company spent millions of dollars to push opioids for growing legions of pain sufferers. A wave of lawsuits demanding reimbursement and accountability for the opioid crisis now ravaging communities has heightened awareness about how and when drugmakers realized the potential dangers of their products.

The Purdue documents lay out how the company and its biggest competitors were jockeying for market share. Some of those drugmakers’ sales promotions downplayed or ignored the risks of taking opioids, or made false claims about their safety, federal regulators have asserted in warning letters to the companies.

Purdue first offered OxyContin as a remedy for moderate to severe cancer pain in 1996. Within three years, the company viewed the cancer market as too limited, with $261 million in potential annual sales versus $1.3 billion for a broader range of chronic pain care, the company’s marketing reports said.

“That was a pretty good recipe for a blockbuster,” said Andrew Kolodny, who directs Physicians for Responsible Opioid Prescribing, an advocacy group critical of drug industry marketing.

Purdue has become the most high-profile drugmaker linked to the surging opioid crisis. But other opioid manufacturers didn’t sit by idly as sales of OxyContin skyrocketed, topping $1 billion in 2000, despite reports of overdose deaths and addiction.

Purdue’s marketing reports indicate the company was worried about losing business to fentanyl-laced patches called Duragesic, as well as morphine pills and, to a lesser degree, methadone — which some managed-care groups and Medicaid health plans preferred because it cost much less than OxyContin. Methadone and morphine are made by a variety of drug companies.

In its 1999 marketing report, Purdue noted that Janssen Pharmaceuticals, an arm of drug giant Johnson & Johnson, was making “slow but steady” progress in promoting its Duragesic patches. The patches, which users attach to their skin, deliver a dose of fentanyl, an opioid drug about 50 to 100 times more powerful than morphine, according to the Drug Enforcement Administration.

Purdue estimated that Janssen would spend about $4 million in 1999 on medical journal advertising to persuade doctors to prescribe the patches for “early treatment of non-cancer pain and pain in the more frail elderly.” That is more than triple what Janssen spent the year before, according to the 2000 Purdue marketing report. In a statement to KHN, a Janssen spokesman said the company quit “actively marketing” Duragesic in 2008.

Purdue also spent millions on medical journal ads — and like Janssen, it drew criticism from the Food and Drug Administration for minimizing the dangers of opioids, government records show.

In 2000, the Food and Drug Administration criticized Purdue for exaggerating the benefits of using OxyContin to treat arthritis, while in 2003 the agency found that some other ads had “grossly overstated” OxyContin’s safety.

Janssen also drew the ire of the FDA. In March 2000, the agency called some claims made for Duragesic “false or misleading,” including the suggestion that the drug “has less potential for abuse than other currently available opioids.”

In September 2004, the FDA told Janssen to “immediately cease” making “false or misleading” claims, including saying that Duragesic was “less abused than other opioid drugs.” In its statement to KHN, Janssen said its marketing actions were “appropriate and responsible,” adding that it “acted quickly to investigate and successfully resolve FDA’s inquiries.”

The Purdue marketing reports are part of a cache of documents the company provided to the Florida attorney general’s office in 2002. The Florida attorney general released them to two Florida newspapers in 2003 after Purdue lost a court battle to keep them under wraps.

More than 1,500 groups, mostly cities, counties and states, are suing Purdue Pharma, Janssen and several competitors and drug distributers in federal court in Cleveland demanding reimbursement for treatment costs and other compensation. In a statement to KHN, Purdue said: “We vigorously deny these allegations and look forward to the opportunity to present our defense.”

The growing cluster of lawsuits argue that drugmakers set out to deceive doctors and the public by claiming their products presented little risk.

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