OxyContin Hearing Prompts Tearful Testimony

Purdue Pharma and three top company officials must pay $634 million in fines for misleading doctors about the addictive nature of the painkiller OxyContin. Before the ruling, OxyContin critics told their stories to the judge.

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But first, a federal judge has ordered Purdue Pharma and three top company officials to pay $634 million in fines for misleading doctors about the addictive nature of OxyContin, a powerful prescription painkiller. It's one of the largest fines ever against a pharmaceutical company. Before the ruling, demonstrators from across the country showed up to tell their stories to the judge.

From Abingdon, Virginia, NPR's Kathy Lohr reports.

KATHY LOHR: Protesters lined up in a parking lot not far from the federal courthouse and began walking. Each carried a four-foot sign with a photo of someone who died from an overdose of OxyContin.

Unidentified Woman: Go ahead, folks. Stay on the sidewalk and then stay in the crosswalk, please.

LOHR: The protesters held a rally against OxyContin, the prescription drug that was marketed as safe when, they said, company officials knew better.

Mr. EDWARD BISCH (Resident, Philadelphia): President's Day 2001, the first time ever I heard the word OxyContin, my 18-year-old son was dead from it.

LOHR: That was in Philadelphia where Edward Bisch started a Web site about his son's death and collected stories from parents across the country. Bisch and others began reading hundreds of names of those who have died while using OxyContin, legally or illegally.

Mr. BISCH: Austin Dewitt Thomas, 16 years old, died at 6/01/02. His mother, his father and his brother miss him terrible.

LOHR: A cheerful Robert Palmisano from Florida was prescribed OxyContin after he injured his back and shoulder. He says he became addicted and served a year in jail for possession and doctor shopping. Palmisano says the drug creates a heroine-like high.

Mr. ROBERT PALMISANO (Resident, Florida): All it takes is lick the coating off, you can dry it off and you can crush it up and you can snort it, in 80 milligrams or 40 milligrams all at one time. And it's all over the streets right now too. It's all over the street. Kids are using that like for recreation. They think it's like pot or alcohol or something. It's just ridiculous.

LOHR: Palmisano was one of 90 who told his emotional story in court. Purdue Pharma and three company executives pleaded guilty to misbranding OxyContin. That is they marketed it to doctors but failed to tell them of the dangers of the drug, it's high potential for abuse and addiction.

Four hundred seventy million dollars of the settlement will compensate state and federal government programs that paid for the drug, including Medicaid. A hundred and thirty million is for private claims. Judge Jones sentenced Purdue to five years probation.

In addition, Michael Friedman, the newly retired president of the company, Paul Goldenheim, the former medical director, and chief counsel Howard Udell received three years probation and 400 hours of community service.

In this coal country of Southwest Virginia, more than 200 deaths have been attributed to OxyContin. The government began its case back in 2001.

Mr. JOHN BROWNLEY (U.S. Attorney, Western District, Virginia): So I believe, taken as a whole, this is an important agreement. And I think the court recognize that by accepting it.

LOHR: U.S. attorney John Brownley.

Mr. BROWNLEY: My hope is that other pharmaceutical companies see what happens here today. And recognize that these products can cause great harm when they are abused and when they are misbranded. A big part of this case is deterrence.

LOHR: After the sentencing, Purdue officials declined to talk about the case. In court, attorneys said the company was troubled by the misconduct but also said there is no proof that a single prescription was written because of misbranding. The company says it never marketed the drug to consumers. Attorneys said OxyContin helped millions of people who suffer from chronic pain.

Many here thought Purdue's executive should have received jail time, including Judge Jones. But he said he wasn't going to hold up the settlement - that his job was to follow the law.

Kathy Lohr, NPR News, Abingdon, Virginia.

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