Big Pharma’s Addiction, Profiting off U.S. Opioid Abuse

While opioid addiction increases among Americans, so escalates pharmaceutical companies’ addiction to profit.

Evidence reveals pharmaceutical companies, considered collectively, (aka Big Pharma), purposely mislead physicians and patients via marketing and drug representatives in order to increase sales.

In 2007, Purdue Pharma, producer of the opioid painkiller OxyContin, agreed to pay $600 million in fines in one of the most costly lawsuits against a drug company. Purdue pleaded guilty to “misbranding” the narcotic “with the intent to defraud or mislead,” which is a felony under the federal Food, Drug, and Cosmetic Act, according to the lawsuit.

The lawsuit explains that Purdue sales reps told health care providers that OxyContin creates less chances for addiction than immediate-release opioids despite the company’s study revealing alternative results. Reps also falsely told health care providers patients “could stop therapy abruptly without experiencing withdrawal symptoms” and they “would not develop tolerance to the drug,” according to the lawsuit.

Purdue aggressively marketed the drug.

“One of the cornerstones of Purdue’s marketing plan was the use of sophisticated marketing data to influence physician’s prescribing,” according to an article written by Art Van Zee, MD, in the American Journal of Public Health, and “to target the physicians who were the highest prescribers for opioids across the country.”

Along with distributing branded promotional items to health care professionals, Purdue bribed sales reps with lucrative bonuses to increase the sale of OxyContin.

This resulted “in a large number of visits to physicians with high rates of opioid prescriptions, as well as a multifaceted information campaign aimed at them,” according to the AJPH article.


OxyContin is one of three of the most common drugs involved in prescription opioid overdose death, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. According to the CDC’s website, nearly half of all opioid overdose deaths involve a prescription opioid.

cdcwonder2016_2

Nearly 50 million American adults have significant chronic pain or severe pain, according to a study by National Institutes of Health’s National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health. Drug companies like Purdue Pharma have used this evidence to pressure physicians into treating chronic pain patients solely with opioids, such as OxyContin, and in 2012, more than 259 million opioid prescriptions were written with 1.9 million Americans addicted to opioid painkillers, according to the National Safety Council.

prescription painkillers

And as opioid sales increase, so rises opioid caused deaths and treatment admissions, according to the Annual Review of Public Health.

opioid trend


Big Pharma’s influence continues to grow stronger via lobbyists and medical education.

In effort to persuade Congress, the pharmaceutical industry has spent $880 million nationwide on lobbying and campaign contributions from 2006-2015 to deter lawmakers from passing legislation that restricts patient access to opioids, according to an investigation from the Center for Public Integrity and the Associated Press.

And records show from 1996-2002, “Purdue funded more than 20,000 pain-related educational programs through direct sponsorship or financial grants, providing a venue that had enormous influence on physicians’ prescribing throughout the country,” according Dr. Zee’s article.

While several factors contribute to America’s opioid abuse epidemic, the increased availability of prescription opioids, such as OxyContin, pushed by Big Pharma like Purdue, should receive strict review and counsel by our government. Physicians should also heed caution and check facts before believing drug reps and marketing.

According to Dr. Zee’s article, “The public interest and public health would be better served by a redefinition of acceptable and allowable marketing practices for opioids and other controlled drugs.”

-JL Smith


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