Saturday, 3 January 2015

No pain, no gain

Drug culture is always evolving and changing as the popularity of substances rises and falls or a given drug ‘scene’ becomes predominant. Lately, anyone close to the substance abuse world as a counselor, therapist, or functionary of the criminal justice system knows that prescription opioids have become the drug of choice in many cities. People become addicted to ‘oxy’ (Oxycontin) or other varieties of these pain-killers, bug their doctors for refills, eventually go scrip-shopping in search of legal access to more of the potent pills, and finally run out of options and turn to street heroin as a cheap back-up. Mexican smack is plentiful, but the crushable and snortable pills are very hot products.

PurduePharma has earned over $27 billion on the sale of Oxycontin just in the United States, and I am betting that the executives of that prosperous firm are aware that much of their product is being diverted into illicit channels for consumption by addicts. Actually, they recently requested that the Food and Drug Administration withdraw their 1995 approval of their product.

So does this mean a drug company got religion and saw the error of its ways? Not exactly. As explained in this two-page annotation of the Purdue letter in the January issue of Harper’s magazine, the pharmaceutical firm already has a new version, supposedly with greater illicit-use protections built into its formulation, on the market. The original Oxy hasn’t been for sale since 2010, so the withdrawal application is a bit of closing the barn door after the horse has escaped.

So why do it? Well, wouldn’t ya know, a generic version of the painkiller was about to get a toehold on the market from another company, so the requested withdrawal of the Oxy authorization, just a month before the patent expiration date, was a way to block competition. That keeps the profits rolling in on the new, improved Oxy that pill mills can crank into the bloodstreams of addict from coast to coast.

Purdue paid over $600 million in fines in 2007 after its top executives pleaded guilty to charges of fraudulently marketing their killer product. That comes to about 5% of gross sales, undoubtedly a manageable business expense—though perhaps they couldn’t deduct it as such. Meanwhile, some 17,000 people a year die of opioid poisoning or overdoses, the most famous being actor Heath Ledger. In short, business is booming.

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