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New Court Documents Reveal OxyContin Manufacturer's Marketing Tactics


New information in court documents sheds light on how Purdue Pharma may have marketed its opioid painkillers. The documents are part of a complaint filed by the Massachusetts attorney general alleging that Purdue and its owners, the Sackler family, helped drive the opioid crisis. Papers were released Thursday after Purdue lost a fight to keep them secret. From member station WBUR, Deborah Becker reports.

DEBORAH BECKER, BYLINE: The new documents show Purdue's aggressive strategies involving billions of dollars for its opioid, OxyContin. At one time, it was the bestselling painkiller in the nation and it's alleged to have fueled the opioid epidemic. One strategy that the complaint calls region zero was a list of doctors who prescribed very large amounts of OxyContin. Despite knowing that the drug was addictive, the complaint says, Purdue sales reps were directed to get those doctors to prescribe even more.

GENEVIEVE KANTER: I suppose we suspect that some of this kind of decision-making is going on.

BECKER: Genevieve Kanter, assistant professor of health ethics at the University of Pennsylvania, says although the complaint from Massachusetts Attorney General Maura Healey is one in a series of lawsuits over the opioid epidemic, it sheds light on Purdue's alleged marketing of a potentially dangerous drug.

KANTER: It's unusual that we see it so explicitly documented.

BECKER: The complaint says without outrageously high prescribers Purdue would have lost almost 10 percent of its sales. And it says the Sacklers knew OxyContin was dangerous as they paid $10 million to settle lawsuits over injuries from the drug while they were earning $189 million in profits from the company.

KANTER: The marketing in combination with what they knew about their product is very problematic, certainly ethically and probably criminally.

BECKER: The complaint says that doctors who were regularly visited by sales reps were 10 times more likely to prescribe Purdue opioids to patients who overdosed and died. Patients were also advised to use OxyContin savings cards. Now, many pharmaceutical companies provide these cards for expensive drugs, but the complaint says the Sacklers knew that the cards meant longer prescriptions. So they allegedly pushed these cards even though they knew that longer prescriptions meant an increased likelihood of addiction. The complaint also names various doctors who seemed to indiscriminately prescribe opioids. Michael Ulrich, assistant professor of health law and ethics at Boston University, says those allegations raise questions.

MICHAEL ULRICH: Physicians are supposed to be kind of the gatekeepers in between the patients and the pharmaceutical companies. I think this case starts to highlight whether we can trust that they can actually do that to the best of their ability.

BECKER: The new documents were released after Purdue lost its legal fight to keep them secret. The company issued a statement saying that Massachusetts is seeking to publicly vilify Purdue by taking out of context snippets from tens of millions of documents. It also says the complaint is riddled with, quote, "demonstrably inaccurate allegations."

For NPR News, I'm Deborah Becker in Boston. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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