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Purdue Pharma Lays Off Entire Sales Force — Too Little, Too LateJuly 3, 2018
Purdue Pharma LP, maker of the drug Oxycontin and recurrent target of public outrage, laid off around 350 employees two weeks ago, including the remainder of its embattled sales force. Purdue helped launch the opioid epidemic nationally during the mid-1990’s by promoting the unchecked and reckless use of prescription opioids across the country. Purdue began downsizing their sales force in February, after announcing the company would stop marketing opioids directly to physicians.
Purdue, a privately owned company, has been fighting hundreds of opioid-related lawsuits by states, counties and cities across the country. Purdue faces accusations of engaging in deceptive marketing practices, suppressing information, and turning a willful blind eye towards fraud and abuse in the marketplace.
Oxycontin, an opioid-based painkiller, was Purdue’s blockbuster drug. Prior to the late-1990s, opiates were used cautiously and sparingly in America, typically for end-of-life care or in hospital settings. The success of Oxycontin was a direct result of a sophisticated and well-funded re-branding campaign by powerful drug companies like Purdue.
With a frighteningly minimal amount of research to back up their claims - a since-discredited, 5-sentence letter to the editor in the New England Journal of Medicine was widely circulated at the time as “proof” - companies like Purdue aggressively downplayed the addictiveness of their pills and ignored countless, egregious examples of overprescription. As a result, Purdue’s sales staff had been under heavy criticism for some time.
Pharmaceutical companies routinely use costs associated with research and development - referred to commonly as “R&D” - to justify high drug prices and strict patent protections. But the R&D budgets at most big drug companies are being surpassed by advertising and marketing costs. In 2013, nine of the ten biggest pharmaceutical companies in America spent more money on marketing than research. Television advertising represents only a fraction of this budget. Most of Purdue’s marketing dollars were devoted to influencing physicians directly, through what could be described, fairly easily, as legalized bribery.
Purdue would like you to believe that they’ve changed. In 2007, in one of the largest court settlements of its kind, they were hit with $600 million in fines and payments by the state of Virginia. At around the same time, Purdue reconstructed Oxycontin pills with a new gelatinous coating. The updated version was time-released, and ostensibly designed to prevent users from crushing and snorting the pills. Purdue’s owner, the Sackler family, has also donated tremendous sums of money to a variety of big-name museums and campuses across the world.
Don’t be fooled. Purdue’s patent on Oxycontin was set to expire in 2006, at which point they would have faced stiff competition from generic drug manufacturers, one way or another. Redesigning the pill - and applying immediately for a new patent - was strategic, and probably inevitable. As for the $600 million dollar settlement, try to weigh that figure in context - Oxycontin generated somewhere around $35 billion dollars in overall profits for the company.
The Sackler family has become obscenely wealthy through the sale of legalized opioids, and have suffered few repercussions for contributing to an epidemic that now kills more people than guns. In 2015, the Sacklers were ranked as the 15th richest family in America by Forbes Magazine, ahead of the Mellons and the Rockefellers.
If you find yourself in Washington, D.C. and you’re feeling curious, you might want to check out the Sackler Gallery at the Smithsonian. If not, there’s a Sackler Wing at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, in New York City. There’s also the Sackler Museum at Harvard, the Sackler Center for Arts Education at the Guggenheim, and the Sackler Wing at the Louvre, in Paris. Enjoy the galleries, but remember: That artwork is covered in blood. Every penny in philanthropic donations from the Sackler family should go directly into rehabilitation centers.
To the millions and millions of Americans who have lost loved ones to drug overdoses, news of Purdue’s layoffs will offer no consolation, but victories in this war are few and far between, and we for one will enjoy watching these folks lose their jobs.
So, farewell! You won’t be missed.
Photo: Associated Press