- The Washington Times - Wednesday, November 12, 2003

The words and images are enough to disturb any parent. A teenager is seen raiding the family medicine cabinet. “The streets aren’t the only place kids find drugs,” a narrator declares ominously. “Sometimes they find them at home.”

Perhaps the most surprising moment in this TV public-service announcement comes at the end, when the narrator urges viewers who want to stop prescription-drug abuse to contact Purdue Pharma LP.

The Stamford, Conn., company makes OxyContin, a powerful painkiller that some people abuse because it offers a heroinlike high.In September, the company began airing the prescription-drug-abuse spots in several cities, including Washington.

James Heins, a Purdue Pharma spokesman, estimates the company has spent $200 million to develop “abuse resistant” painkillers, educate doctors and the public, and work with police to curb abuse.

Some doctors, police officers, lawmakers and consumer advocates have criticized Purdue Pharma, saying the company has marketed OxyContin too aggressively. The General Accounting Office, the investigative arm of Congress, is expected to release a study in the next several weeks that will examine, among other items, the correlation between OxyContin’s marketing and its abuse.

“The [Food and Drug Administration] has been negligent in allowing doctors to prescribe OxyContin for mild pain. Purdue Pharma has been negligent for pushing this thing so aggressively,” said Rep. Frank R. Wolf, a Virginia Republican who requested the GAO study.

Abuse of OxyContin in rural Virginia and other states, including West Virginia and Kentucky, brought national attention to the problem two years ago.

Mr. Heins said the FDA has approved OxyContin only for moderate-to-severe pain and the company has never promoted its use for mild pain.

In a written statement, Mr. Heins said its marketing efforts have been appropriate. “While we respect Congressman Wolf’s right to speak his mind on this issue, we believe that health care decisions should be made by medical experts who take into account the needs of patients and the risks that any particular drug poses to society.”

A panel of “distinguished scientists and physicians” ruled recently that OxyContin’s use should not be restricted, the statement said.

The FDA criticized Purdue Pharma’s advertisements in medical journals in a January letter to the company. The ad promoted OxyContin “for uses beyond which have been proven safe and effective,” the letter stated.

Purdue Pharma pulled the ads. It produced amended versions and cleared them with the FDA before running them in the journals again, Mr. Heins said.

“It is an enormously useful drug, but the way it has been promoted is misleading,” said Larry Sasich, a pharmacist and research analyst for Public Citizen, a consumer group.

Purdue Pharma is stepping up its efforts to combat prescription-drug abuse. In addition to the television public service announcements, the company is a member of the Rx Action Alliance, a group of pharmaceutical companies, nonprofit organizations, government agencies and consumer advocates trying to combat prescription-drug abuse.

The company has come a long way from its humble roots.

Dr. John Purdue Gray and George Frederick Bingham founded the Purdue Frederick Co. in New York in 1892.

In 1952, two psychiatrist brothers — Dr. Raymond Sackler and Dr. Mortimer Sackler — bought the struggling company, which had few employees and $22,000 in annual revenue. They transformed it into a powerhouse known for over-the-counter medicines such as the laxative Senokot and the antiseptic Betadine.

The Sacklers formed Purdue Pharma in 1991. It introduced OxyContin in 1995.

Purdue Frederick and Purdue Pharma are “associated companies,” Mr. Heins said. Together, they have 3,288 employees and $1.5 billion in annual revenue. OxyContin sales reached $1.27 billion in 2002.

The Sacklers’ pharmaceutical empire has made their family wealthy, and it has given generously to charities, universities and museums around the world, including the Smithsonian Institution and New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art.

The company never went public, and it kept a low profile before OxyContin.

The Drug Enforcement Administration surveyed medical examiners on drug-related deaths in 2000 and 2001 and concluded OxyContin was the direct cause of or a contributing factor in 146 deaths. An additional 318 deaths most likely involved OxyContin as well, the report stated.

Purdue Pharma funded a recent study in the Journal of Analytical Toxicology that examined 1,243 deaths from Aug. 27, 1999, through Jan. 17, 2002, in which medical examiners determined oxycodone, the narcotic in OxyContin, was involved. Almost 97 percent of the deaths resulted from multiple drugs. Three percent involved oxycodone alone.

Since April 2001, more than 50 OxyContin-related lawsuits against Purdue Pharma have been dismissed, by either the courts or the plaintiffs themselves. The company has never lost a case and has paid no money to settle a case, Mr. Heins said.


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