The maker of OxyContin, one of the most common prescription painkillers involved in opioid overdose deaths, will no longer market the drug to doctors, an announcement that came Saturday as Purdue Pharma faces a lawsuit for deceptive marketing brought by cities and counties across the U.S., including several in Maine.
The days of marketing opioids to U.S. doctors are over, according to a statement issued by Purdue Pharma. The drug manufacturer has also cut its sales force by more than half.
Just how important are these steps in the backdrop of an opioid epidemic that took the lives of more than 300 Maine people in 2016?
“They’re 20 years late to the game,” says Dr. Noah Nesin, a family physician and vice president of medical affairs at Penobscot Community Health Care.
Nesin says even after Purdue Pharma paid $600 million in fines about a decade ago for misleading doctors and regulators about the risks opioids posed for addiction and abuse, it continued marketing them.
“I think it’s similar to the tobacco industry learning they could sell tobacco without spending a lot of money on advertising. My guess is this decision is in their self interest,” he says.
A nationwide lawsuit against Purdue Pharma for deceptive marketing continues to grow. Seven cities in Maine have joined, including Portland, Lewiston and Bangor, along with five counties, to recoup some of the costs of addressing the addiction crisis.
A spokesman for Purdue Pharma says in an email that the decision to stop marketing to prescribers is voluntary and independent of any litigation.
Nesin says that at the very least it reinforces the need for caution when prescribing opioids. Maine Medical Association President Dr. Robert Schlager agrees that it’s a good, if small, step to fight the opioid epidemic.
“I wouldn’t expect it to have a very large role in limiting opioids further. Because most of us, as prescribers, do limit our information exchange with the drug representatives who have been marketing opioids,” he says.
Since 2016, doctors in Maine have also adhered to prescribing limits enacted by the Legislature. Schlager says Purdue Pharma should go further and suspend opioid marketing worldwide.
“It seems a little bit not honest to just limit it here in the United States,” he says.
In an email, a Purdue Pharma spokesman says that the company only operates in the United States, and that an associated company, Mundipharma, has not marketed opioids in Europe since 2013.
A Los Angeles Times investigation in 2016 found that the family who owns Purdue Pharma has a network of international companies — including Mundipharma, which operates on six continents — that employ the same marketing practices used in the U.S. that made OxyContin a blockbuster drug.