Oxycontin maker admits lying about risks

An Oxycontin bottle

KAI RYSSDAL: We hear about companies paying fines all the time. So often that some of us get jaded unless the headline calls it a record. Usually the second line of that story is something about the company in question not admitting guilt.

So the news about the makers of the powerful painkiller Oxycontin today was a surprise. Purdue Pharma and three top executives of the company admitted they lied about the drug's addiction risks. And collectively, they'll pay more than $600 million in fines.

From the Marketplace Health Desk at WGBH, Helen Palmer has more.


HELEN PALMER: Oxycontin's formulated as a long-lasting painkiller — but chewing it, or crushing and injecting it, can create a heroin-like high.

The drug's maker, Purdue Pharma, knew there was potential for abuse, but pushed it aggressively anyway, says attorney John Brownlee.

JOHN BROWNLEE: They continued to push a fraudulent marketing campaign that promoted Oxycontin as being less addictive, less subject to abuse and less likely to cause withdrawal.

Brownlee is the U.S. attorney for the western district of Virginia. He says the $634 million plus in fines will punish Purdue's wrongdoing and help compensate some of the people harmed by Oxycontin who've sued the company.

BROWNLEE: We've had them set aside $130 million so that they can pay these civil claims that they either lose or they decide to settle.

Plaintiffs' attorneys say this guilty plea will make Oxycontin cases easier to win, so many will continue. Meanwhile, some argue Purdue's getting off lightly.

Alex Sugarman-Brozan of the consumer group Prescription Access Litigation:

ALEX SUGARMAN-BROZAN: The effects are lingering, and there's also question of whether even this $635 million sufficiently addresses the harm that was done, or whether they can chalk it up as a cost of doing business.

Since 2000, Oxycontin's retail sales in the U.S. were $9.6 billion.

In Boston, I'm Helen Palmer for Marketplace.

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