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OxyContin maker Purdue will stop selling doctors on opioids

Amid several lawsuits that accuse manufacturing giant Purdue Pharma of contributing to the country’s opioid epidemic, the company announced Saturday it will cut sales staff by more than half and stop marketing opioids to doctors. Reporter Lev Facher, who wrote for STAT that it marked the end of an aggressive, opioid marketing era that Purdue created, joins Hari Sreenivasan from Washington, D.C.

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  • HARI SREENIVASAN:

    This week, the maker of OxyContin announced it is ending its marketing operation for the powerful opioid. Purdue Pharma is not giving up selling the highly profitable drug but it will stop sending reps to doctors offices to drive sales of the addictive painkiller. Back in 2007, Purdue pleaded guilty to criminal charges of misleading the public about Oxycontin addictive qualities and agree to a civil penalty of nearly $635 million. This week's decision comes as Purdue and other opioid manufacturers are facing lawsuits from some 400 cities and states alleging they fueled addiction by misrepresenting the risks. Could Purdue's move change the course of America's opioid crisis. Lev Facher is a reporter with STAT News joins me now from Washington D.C. Tell me how significant this is?

  • LEV FACHER:

    Well, symbolically this is huge. This is the company that really changed the paradigm for opioid use in the 1990s by aggressively marketing it to prescribers. The fact that Purdue has decided it's no longer going to go into doctors offices and push this drug is really symbolic of where the country currently is in terms of considering the opioid epidemic a public health crisis and in terms of recognizing the potential harmful characteristics of drugs like OxyContin.

  • HARI SREENIVASAN:

    What's the correlation between marketing them less and less of them being available on the street?

  • LEV FACHER:

    Obviously marketing drugs less should correspond to fewer sales. That said this is not really a preemptive move. This is after years of declining Oxycontin sales. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention issued recently new and much stricter guidelines for opioid prescription so prescriptions are down. Public awareness of the addictive qualities of these drugs is way up. And while there is still legitimate medical need and while prescriptions are going to continue, this is a move that more corresponds to a decline in sales than one that should fuel one.

  • HARI SREENIVASAN:

    But what are the factors that can actually decrease opioid consumption overall or over prescription? It seems that there's a tremendous amount of power that's in the hands of the insurance companies that choose to say that it's OK to prescribe these and that will pay for them?

  • LEV FACHER:

    Yeah. And both insurance companies and public health providers like Medicaid and Medicare have taken steps a variety of steps recently to reduce prescriptions and increase incentives to prescribe non opioid non-addictive painkillers. But again, the marketing I think is less of something that's going to drive fewer prescriptions and more on produce from something that is meant to really change the narrative they've been taking out full page ads in newspapers. They've been really trying to get out in front of the fact that they are increasingly viewed as a culprit. You mentioned the settlement in 2007. They're in talks to settle many of those other lawsuits from states and municipalities that you mentioned. So in terms of marketing it's unclear what level of impact that's going to have on prescription levels but this comes amid a really sea change in the way physicians are prescribing opioids to begin with. And that's been happening over the last several years along with actions from the Drug Enforcement Agency. A lot of different, you know, government agencies that are really taking steps to make sure that these drugs are used much less liberally.

  • HARI SREENIVASAN:

    All right. Liv Facher of STAT News joining us from Washington, D.C. Thanks so much.

  • LEV FACHER:

    Thanks.

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