End of an era: Purdue to stop marketing opioids to doctors

urdue Pharmaceuticals, the maker of the opioid painkiller OxyContin, said it would no longer actively market opioid products — a major about-face for a company increasingly viewed as a principal culprit in the country’s addiction and overdose crisis.

The company said it is reducing its sales staff by more than half, and that its remaining salespeople will no longer visit doctor’s offices to push their product. Instead, the company said it will direct prescribers to materials published by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the office of the U.S. surgeon general.

“We have restructured and significantly reduced our commercial operation and will no longer be promoting opioids to prescribers,” Purdue said in a statement.

The announcement, first reported by Bloomberg, marks the end of an era for a company that changed the paradigm for opioid use in part through aggressive, in-person marketing to doctors. Sales of OxyContin and other opioids have fallen recently amid pressure from regulators, insurers, and the general public. The company has been unable to develop or buy a drug to replace OxyContin’s sales.

Instead, the company has mounted a vast public-relations effort in the face of increasing criticism — most notably with recent full-page ads in major newspapers.

“We manufacture prescription opioids,” reads one of the ads. “How could we not help fight the prescription and illicit opioid abuse crisis?”

State lawsuits against Purdue have mounted in recent months as governments at all levels have struggled to combat the opioid epidemic — much of which, experts say, was caused by excessive prescription of powerful painkillers like OxyContin. The company in 2007 paid out $600 million to settle civil and criminal charges related to the drug’s marketing, with three company executives agreeing to pay an additional $34.5 million.

The health insurer Cigna also announced in October it would no longer cover OxyContin through employer-based plans, shortly after the pharmaceutical industry lobby group PhRMA broadly endorsed policies that limit opioid prescriptions to seven days.

In an effort to shed light on the marketing practices of Purdue, STAT filed a motion in March 2016 to unseal records including the deposition of Dr. Richard Sackler, a former president of Purdue and a member of the family that owns the privately held Connecticut company. The records could provide new information on how Purdue marketed the potent opioid and what top executives knew about the addictive nature of the painkiller.

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