The company that makes the painkiller OxyContin, and three of its current and former executives, pleaded guilty Thursday to charges of misleading the public about the drug's risks.
Purdue Pharma LP and the executives will pay a total of $634 million in fines. The Connecticut-based company pleaded guilty to a felony charge of misbranding with the intent to defraud and mislead. Its president, chief legal officer and former chief medical officer also pleaded guilty to a misdemeanor charge.
U.S. attorney John Brownlee said Purdue Pharma had deliberately downplayed OxyContin's potential for abuse and addiction.
"Simply put, the genesis of OxyContin was not the result of good science or laboratory experiments. OxyContin was the child of marketers and bottom-line financial decision-making," Brownlee says.
He says that beginning in 1996, Purdue Pharma began holding focus groups with doctors about its new long-lasting painkiller. Many of the doctors said they were reluctant to prescribe the drug because they worried about its potential for abuse. So the company's sales representatives began misleading physicians about OxyContin. They said, for instance, that the drug produced no euphoric feelings for users and that users suffered no withdrawal symptoms when they stopped taking it.
Within a few years, Brownlee says, use of the drug exploded.
"The result of these misrepresentations and crimes sparked one of the nation's worst prescription-drug failures," Brownlee says. "OxyContin is nothing more than pure oxycodone: a habit-forming drug derived from the opium poppy."
This case was brought in western Virginia, which, like many rural areas, has had to grapple with widespread abuse of OxyContin.
William Masello, the assistant chief medical examiner for the region, says that in 1996, three people died from OxyContin abuse in the area. Masello says that by 2003, the number had climbed to 44.
"Both the law enforcement people and myself here noticed a major uptick in the number of deaths and the number of crimes related to opiate drugs, the principal of which was OxyContin," Masello says.
Thursday's guilty pleas come two days after the drug maker reached a settlement with 26 states and the District of Columbia, which said the company failed to adequately disclose the drug's risks.
For its part, Purdue Pharma issued a statement Thursday acknowledging that some of its employees had misrepresented the drug before 2001. But it said that since then, it has implemented new training, monitoring and compliance procedures to ensure that the same thing doesn't happen again.
Of the $634 million the company has agreed to pay, about $130 million will go to pay claims from private lawsuits. The rest will go to federal and state agencies, including a Virginia program for monitoring prescription-drug abuse.