The Milwaukee-Wisconsin Journal Sentinel has produced an investigative report following up with the “poster children” of OxyContin – a group of seven people who were featured in a promotional video for the painkiller that was put out by Oxy maker Purdue Pharma in the late 1990s. Fourteen years later, it’s a mixed bag. Two of the seven patients have died: one man flipped his car after falling asleep at the wheel, high on OxyContin, while a second man was found dead in his apartment of apparent heart failure. Both men were active opioid abusers at the time of their deaths. A third patient became addicted to Oxy but was able to quit after realizing she was headed for an overdose. Three patients still say the drug helped them cope with their pain and improved their quality of life, while the seventh patient declined to answer questions.
The doctor who enlisted his patients for the video – a pain specialist who was also a paid speaker for Purdue at the time – told the Journal that his statements urging physicians to consider prescribing opioids more often went too far, and that success stories may be “quite rare.” In the video, the doctor had claimed that the rate of addiction among pain patients was much less than 1 percent, but he told the Journal that figure did not come from long-term studies of chronic pain patients.
The National Institute on Drug Abuse says studies among chronic pain patients have found addiction rates ranging from 3 percent to 40 percent.
According to the Journal, the video was meant to be one teaching aid used in lectures by experienced doctors, but was instead distributed to 15,000 doctors in a marketing campaign by Purdue.
In 2007, Purdue and three of its top executives were found guilty of misrepresenting the addictive nature of OxyContin and fined $634.5 million. The company also agreed to a $20 million settlement of similar allegations with 27 state attorneys general.
Sales of OxyContin have reached nearly $3 billion a year. Meanwhile, prescription painkillers are responsible for around 15,000 deaths and 475,000 emergency room visits a year, killing more people than car accidents.
Separately, Advocates for the Reform of Prescription Opioids (ARPO) has sponsored its own report following up on two of Purdue’s “poster children.”