Purdue Pharma didn't correct misperceptions about OxyContin strength: 5 notes

Richard Sackler, MD, a former Purdue Pharma executive and member of the billionaire family that founded and controls the company, embraced a plan to conceal OxyContin's strength in an effort to boost prescriptions and sales, newly unveiled court documents cited by ProPublica and STAT reveal.

Five things to know:

1. New details about the Sackler family's involvement in boosting opioid prescriptions were released in a 2015 deposition of Dr. Sackler. The deposition is believed to be the only time a member of the Sackler family spoke directly about their role at Purdue Pharma in court under oath.

2. A major detail divulged in the deposition comes from a chain of emails. In 1997, about a year after Purdue Pharma launched OxyContin, Purdue Pharma's head of sales, Michael Friedman, told Dr. Sackler that he didn't want to correct a misconception that OxyContin, made from oxycodone, was weaker than morphine because that misconception was increasing prescription rates and sales.

"It would be extremely dangerous at this early stage in the life of the product," Mr. Friedman wrote to Dr. Sackler, "to make physicians think the drug is stronger or equal to morphine. We are well aware of the view held by many physicians that oxycodone is weaker than morphine. I do not plan to do anything about that."

"I agree with you," Dr. Sackler responded, according to the report.  "Is there a general agreement, or are there some holdouts?"

2. Despite physicians believing that OxyContin was weaker, it is actually twice as potent as morphine. Purdue Pharma pleaded guilty in federal court in 2007 to understating the potency and risk of addiction.

3. The deposition also reveals Dr. Sackler and  Mr. Friedman worked to ensure OxyContin didn't develop the end-of-life or cancer treatment reputation of morphine, because it could have jeopardized sales.

"Since the noncancer pain market is much greater than the cancer pain market, it is important that we allow this product to be positioned where it currently is in the physician’s mind."

5. A Purdue Pharma spokesperson told The Wall Street Journal that during the deposition Mr. Sackler "described Purdue's efforts to adhere to all relevant laws and regulations and to appropriately reflect OxyContin's risks of abuse and addiction." The statement added, "The company's determination to avoid emphasizing OxyContin as a powerful cancer pain drug was made out of a concern that non-cancer patients would be reluctant to take a cancer drug."

Read the full report here.


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