Few drugs in recent history have attracted so much attention, and stirred so much controversy, as OxyContin. In the grip of a devastating opioid epidemic that has claimed more than 185,000 lives, health officials are finally discouraging primary-care doctors from prescribing opioids for chronic pain, saying there is no proof that they work long-term and that they are extremely addictive.
The Obama administration unveiled a series of new initiatives earlier this year aimed at treating addiction and educating doctors about prescription opioid abuse.
Growing awareness in the White House and a significant uptick in TV and print media coverage of the crisis could be partly why there has been a nearly 40 percent drop in prescriptions for OxyContin since it was introduced in 1996, as reported by the New York Times several months ago.
So Purdue’s extremely wealthy owners, the Sackler family, are adopting a new strategy: they are putting the painkiller that set off the U.S. opioid crisis into medicine cabinets around the world.
After all, their cash cow helped place the Sacklers at number 16 on Forbes’ 2015 list of America’s Richest Families with a stunning $14 billion.
But this year, the Sacklers dropped down to number 19 because they earned only a mere $13 billion.
Hence, speculates one humble reporter, the decision to hit the road and peddle their killer drug abroad.
A network of international companies owned by the Sackler clan is moving rapidly into Latin America, Asia, the Middle East, Africa and other regions, and pushing for broad use of painkillers in places ill-prepared to deal with opioid abuse and addiction, according to the Los Angeles Times.
Mundipharma reps and promotional material downplay the risk that patients will become addicted to opioid medications, according the LA Times report.
These international companies are following a well-worn playbook used by their American counterparts.
In an investigative piece for StatNews, author David Armstrong reported: “A trove of internal documents obtained by STAT, shows the lengths to which Abbott [Laboratories representing OxyContin sales to physicians] went to hook in doctors and make OxyContin a billion-dollar blockbuster. The sales force bought takeout dinners for doctors and met them at bookstores to pay for their purchases. In memos, the sales team referred to the marketing of the drug as a ‘crusade,’ and their boss called himself the ‘King of Pain.’”
Purdue is also hard at work abroad with these local companies running training seminars to urge doctors to overcome their “opiophobia” and prescribe painkillers. They’re sponsoring public campaigns encouraging people to seek treatment for chronic pain and are offering discounts to make prescription opioids more affordable.
U.S. Surgeon General Vivek H. Murthy said he would advise his peers abroad “to be very careful” with opioid medications and to learn from American “missteps.”
“I would urge them to be very cautious about the marketing of these medications,” he said in an interview. “Now, in retrospect, we realize that for many the benefits did not outweigh the risks.”
Speaking on CBS News, former US Food and Drug Commissioner David A. Kessler called the failure to recognize the dangers of painkillers one of the biggest mistakes in modern medicine.
Meanwhile, promotional videos for Mundipharma, which feature smiling people of many ethnicities, suggest the company regards OxyContin’s U.S. success as merely a beginning.
“We’re only just getting started,” the videos declare.
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