Pain Pill Giant Purdue to Stop Promotion of Opioids to Doctors

  • Company says it plans to cut more than half of U.S. salesforce
  • Purdue developed many modern pharmaceutical sales tactics

Bottles of Purdue Pharma LP OxyContin medication.

Photographer: George Frey/Bloomberg

Pain-pill giant Purdue Pharma LP will stop promoting its opioid drugs to doctors, a retreat after years of criticism that the company’s aggressive sales efforts helped lay the foundation of the U.S. addiction crisis.

The company told employees this week that it would cut its sales force by more than half, to 200 workers. It plans to send a letter Monday to doctors saying that its salespeople will no longer come to their clinics to talk about the company’s pain products.

“We have restructured and significantly reduced our commercial operation and will no longer be promoting opioids to prescribers,” the company said in a statement. Instead, any questions doctors have will be directed to the Stamford, Connecticut-based company’s medical affairs department.

OxyContin, approved in 1995, is the closely held company’s biggest-selling drug, though sales of the pain pill have declined in recent years amid competition from generics. It generated $1.8 billion in 2017, down from $2.8 billion five years earlier, according to data compiled by Symphony Health Solutions. It also sells the painkiller Hysingla.

Purdue is credited with helping develop many modern tactics of aggressive pharmaceutical promotion. Its efforts to push OxyContin included OxyContin music, fishing hats and stuffed plush toys. More recently, it has positioned itself as an advocate for fighting the opioid addiction crisis, as overdoses from prescription drugs claim thousands of American lives each year.

Rising Toll

Purdue and other opioid makers and distributors face dozens of lawsuits in which they’re accused of creating a public-health crisis through their marketing of the painkillers. Purdue officials confirmed in November that they are in settlement talks with a group of state attorneys general and trying to come up with a global resolution of the government opioid claims.

More than 60,000 people died from drug overdoses in 2016, and there was a fivefold increase in overdose deaths involving synthetic opioids -- from 3,105 in 2013 to about 20,000 in 2016, according to the Centers for Disease Control. The addiction epidemic cost the American economy $504 billion in 2015, the equivalent of 2.8 percent of the U.S. gross domestic product that year, according to a report by the Council of Economic Advisers.

About 200 remaining Purdue salespeople will focus on promoting the company’s opioid induced constipation drug, Symproic. The drug launched last year in partnership with Shionogi & Co.

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