The OxyContin 'Conspiracy' -- Is $700 Million Enough?

According to a 243-page report released by the National Center on Addiction and Substance Abuse at Columbia University in March, the abuse of drugs such as Vicodin, Percocet and Oxycontin by college students rose 342.9 percent between 1993 and 2005.

Moreover, a number of deaths related to OxyCodone have been reported since its introduction. According to reports by the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration, the drug caused 146 deaths and contributed to another 318 through 2002.

Hundreds of additional deaths have been reported since, and the impact of the drug continues to be scrutinized.

Despite increased monitoring and crackdowns, however, it is still possible to purchase OxyContin through numerous online pharmacies. Others resort to getting the drug through those with prescriptions who sell their pills for money, or they even head to other countries where enforcement is comparatively lax.

Saper says that the marketing and promotion practices adopted by Purdue Pharma directly contributed to this problem.

He further maintains that Purdue did this by working to change the way doctors prescribe the drug. He says the company worked with professional medical organizations to change prescription guidelines for OxyContin to include patients with chronic pain, rather than those with temporary pain.

This, he says, led to increased prescriptions, and in turn increased availability of the drug, both for the patients using it legitimately and those abusing it.

"Once that door got open to use narcotics liberally in benign, or chronic, pain conditions, [Purdue] created a whole new world to sell into," Saper says.

Drug Still Has Important Application

But pain experts say regardless of the legal deliberations, the drug is still an important source of relief for patients who experience pain.

"[It] would be a real shame if their product ended up being the villain here," says Lee Vermeulen, director of the Center for Drug Policy at University of Wisconsin Hospital and Clinics.

"Appropriate pain management is a public health priority," he continues. "Too many patients live (and some die) in pain unnecessarily due to misconceptions about the safety and value of appropriate pain care."

June Dahl, professor of pharmacology at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, agrees.

"This drug has very important therapeutic value," she says. "The charges against the company and the decision rendered in this case have no bearing on the clinical usefulness of this drug."

Heins of Purdue Pharma says the settlement will not affect the availability of OxyContin, and the FDA-approved indications for the drug will remain the same.

And even Saper says OxyContin has benefits for those in legitimate need of pain relief.

"Would I take OxyContin if I needed a narcotic for a week? I would," he says.

But Saper adds that the drug stands as a classic example of a good drug marketed in a bad way.

"They have taken a good drug and protected its downsides by not being open about its risks," he says.

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