In many people, OxyContin doesn’t give 12-hour pain relief as advertised, and that can cause an addiction problem

Oxycontin tablets (Los Angeles Times photo by Liz Baylen)

Why have so many people become addicted to the painkiller OxyContin? We know about the overselling of the drug by its manufacturer, Purdue Pharma, which cost the company $635 million in 2007 to settle an investigation by the Department of Justice. Now the Los Angeles Times reports on another big reason, which the settlement didn’t address: In many people, OxyContin doesn’t last as long as advertised, and “Patients can experience excruciating symptoms of withdrawal, including an intense craving for the drug,” Harriet Ryan, Lisa Girion and Scott Glover report.

Purdue Pharma “launched OxyContin two decades ago with a bold marketing claim: One dose relieves pain for 12 hours, more than twice as long as generic medications,” the writers report. “On the strength of that promise, OxyContin became America’s bestselling painkiller, and Purdue reaped $31 billion in revenue.”

However, the Times reports, “Even before OxyContin went on the market, clinical trials showed many patients weren’t getting 12 hours of relief,” as the company claimed. “Since the drug’s debut in 1996, the company has been confronted with additional evidence, including complaints from doctors, reports from its own sales reps and independent research.
The company has held fast to the claim of 12-hour relief, in part to protect its revenue. OxyContin’s market dominance and its high price — up to hundreds of dollars per bottle — hinge on its 12-hour duration. Without that, it offers little advantage over less expensive painkillers.”

In the late 1990s, when doctors began telling patients to take OxyContin at shorter intervals, “Purdue executives mobilized hundreds of sales reps to [refocus’ physicians on 12-hour dosing. Anything shorter ‘needs to be nipped in the bud. NOW!!’ one manager wrote to her staff,” the Times reports. “Purdue tells doctors to prescribe stronger doses, not more frequent ones, when patients complain that OxyContin doesn’t last 12 hours. That approach creates risks of its own. Research shows that the more potent the dose of an opioid such as OxyContin, the greater the possibility of overdose and death.
More than half of long-term OxyContin users are on doses that public-health officials consider dangerously high, according to an analysis of nationwide prescription data conducted for The Times.”

More than 7 million Americans have abused OxyContin in the last 20 years, according to the National Survey on Drug Use and Health, and a disproportionate number have been in Appalachia and Eastern Kentucky, where the drug has been called “hillbilly heroin.” OxyContin “is widely blamed for setting off the nation’s prescription opioid epidemic, which has claimed more than 190,000 lives from overdoses involving OxyContin and other painkillers since 1999,” the Times reports.

Purdue Pharma issued statement calling the Times story “long on anecdotes and short on facts” and said it was based on a “long-discredited theory.” Times spokeswoman Hillary Manning replied, “Our editors see nothing in Purdue’s statement that casts doubt on our reporting or our findings.” For details, click here.

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