Tuesday, October 9, 2007
OxyContin Back in Court
Kentucky goes after makers of “hillbilly heroin”
The attorney general for the state of Kentucky filed a lawsuit last week against Purdue Pharma L.P., makers of OxyContin, seeking to recover damages related to widespread addiction to the painkiller commonly known as “hillbilly heroin.”
Brought to widespread attention by Rush Limbaugh’s well-publicized addiction, OxyContin is a prescription narcotic for which a thriving black market has been established. It did not take drug users long to discover that OxyContin could also be ground up and either snorted or injected for a heroin-style high. Hundreds of deaths have been attributed to the street use of this Schedule II narcotic. Kentucky state officials say the social costs associated with fighting addiction have increased dramatically since the drug’s introduction. Others states are prepared to make the same argument.
Oxycontin racked up sales of $2 billion for the year ended August 2005. At least two companies, Pain Therapeutics (PTIE) and Alpharma, (ALO) are aiming at the market for more abuse-proof versions of OxyContin. “The big issue,” writes The Motley Fool’s Brian Lawler, “is whether insurers and government health programs will be willing to pay the premium price for an abuse-resistant drug.”
Oxycodone, as the drug is known medically, is a semi-synthetic derivative of thebaine, an alkaloid found in opium. It was developed in Germany in the early years of the 20th Century as a morphine substitute. Today, oxycodone is used extensively and very effectively for pain relief in terminal cancer patients. The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) approved the used of OxyContin in a time-release version in 2004.
Purdue Pharma said it will contest the lawsuit, which charges fraud, conspiracy and negligence--but the company recently settled other litigation with West Virginia and the U.S. Department of Justice for $685 million in cases alleging illegal marketing and promotion of the drug. U.S Attorney John Brownlee of the Western District of Virginia said that company sales reps falsely implied that OxyContin had less potential for addiction and abuse than similar prescription narcotics. Several other states were parties to those complaints, in which Purdue Pharma officials pled guilty last year to charges of misleading the public. Several states have taken a similar approach toward Merck, the manufacturers of Vioxx.
The Kentucky attorney general’s office said OxyContin addiction was so widespread that officials in Pike County were forced to build a $5.6 addition to the county jail to cope with increased convictions for oxycodone addiction. “It’s ironic that those who manufacture a drug that is meant to ease the pain of those suffering from debilitating diseases… have in fact inflicted so much pain by being deceptive and greedy,” said Country Judge-Executive Wayne Rutherford.
With the plethora of state lawsuits brought on behalf of Medicaid programs and law-enforcement agencies against OxyContin, “I think we have the answer as to whether government health programs will cover the costs of these abuse-resistant drugs,” Lawler concludes. “Count this as one less hurdle for Pain Therapeutics, Alpharma, and the other developers of these abuse-resistant compounds."