Purdue Pharma's 'Misleading' Websites

By Pat Anson, Editor

Days after launching a new website promoting abuse deterrent technology, drug maker Purdue Pharma has reached a settlement with New York’s Attorney General in which the company agreed to be more transparent about how it promotes itself in “unbranded” websites.

The maker of OxyContin also admitted its sales representatives contacted doctors who were on a “No Call List” -- even after they were red flagged for possible abuse and diversion of opioids.

“Over the past two decades, New York has experienced a sharp increase in opioid addiction,” said Attorney General Eric Scheiderman. My office will work to ensure that prescription drugs are marketed and prescribed responsibly.”

The Attorney General’s investigation found that one of Purdue’s websites, In the Face of Pain, could “mislead consumers” by suggesting that its content was neutral and unbiased, when in fact nearly a dozen “advocates” who appeared on the site and in YouTube videos were paid nearly a quarter of a million dollars by Purdue.

“The website failed to disclose that from 2008 to 2013, Purdue made payments totaling almost $231,000, for speaker programs, advisory meetings and travel costs, to 11 of the Advocates whose testimonials appeared on the site. The videos on YouTube also fail to disclose Purdue’s payments to the Advocates. Purdue’s failure to disclose its financial connections with certain Advocates has the potential to mislead consumers by failing to disclose the potential bias of these individuals,” the settlement states.

The agreement calls on Purdue to disclose financial relationships with any individuals, including doctors and other healthcare professionals, that endorse the benefits of pain treatment.

Purdue removed the profiles of the paid “Advocates” from In the Face of Pain in April 2015, after the attorney general’s investigation was well underway.

The settlement also takes Purdue to task for its sales practices. Purdue admits that its sales representatives on at least three occasions contacted doctors on a “No Call List” of 103 physicians in New York state who the company suspected may have been involved in the abuse and diversion of opioids. The calls were made to promote OxyContin.

Purdue sales representatives, who amazingly were not required to check the company's No Call List, made about 1,800 sales calls to doctors on the list over a six year period, “some quite extensively,” even buying meals for about a third of them.  It's not clear if the sales calls were made before or after the doctors were added to the list. Some of those doctors were later arrested or convicted for illegal prescribing of opioids.

A company spokesman told Pain News Network that sales calls could have also been made to doctors on No Call Lists outside of New York.

Under the terms of the settlement, Purdue agreed to adopt more “red flags” to identify doctors who may be prescribing opioids inappropriately or illegally. Sales representatives will also be required to check the No Call List before contacting a provider and will be disciplined if they don’t

As part of the settlement, Purdue Pharma will also pay $75,000 in fines and costs.

“Rather than pursuing an expensive, lengthy and uncertain litigation-based approach, the Attorney General’s initiatives will yield immediate and improved efforts to address issues designed to enhance public health,” said Robin Abrams, Vice President and Associate General Counsel for Purdue Pharma.

“For more than a decade we’ve implemented industry-leading programs designed to reduce the abuse and diversion of prescription medicine. We’ve relied on the input and encouragement of law enforcement officials, like the Attorney General, to continually upgrade and improve our programs.”

Purdue’s New Website

Early this week, Purdue introduced Team Against Opioid Abuse, a new website designed to help healthcare providers and laypeople learn about different abuse-deterrent technologies that make opioid medications harder to misuse and abuse.

Like In the Face of Pain, Team Against Opioid Abuse is not clearly identified as a Purdue Pharma website, except by a small copyright notice at the bottom.

“Using clear graphics and easy to understand language, the website features sections about why it's critical to deter abuse and how all the members on the healthcare team can make a difference,” Purdue said in a press release announcing its newest website.

In the wake of the New York settlement, the company said it would review the website, listen to feedback and incorporate any necessary modifications. 

Purdue was also in the news recently after the U.S. Food and Drug Administration quietly approved OxyContin for use by children aged 11 to 16 who suffer from chronic pain and who are already being treated with opioids.

The FDA’s move angered many anti-addiction advocates because the agency did not consult with an outside advisory panel or hold any public hearings before making its decision.

“We've known for a long time how immoral this company is.  As far as Purdue's role, this comes as no surprise; they have had this idea for some time now, as it represents a very lucrative market for them.  We've also known for a long time how unethical the FDA is.  This brings both truths out in the open,” said Pete Jackson, president of Advocates for the Reform of Prescription Opioids, who lost his 18-year-old daughter Emily to a single dose of OxyContin in 2006.

OxyContin was introduced to the U.S. in 1996 and soon became a blockbuster drug for Purdue,  reportedly generating profits in excess of $10 billion. Many believe it also helped fuel an “epidemic” of opioid addiction and overdoses, leading to the deaths of thousands of people.

In 2007, a class action lawsuit against Purdue for deceptive marketing ended when several company executives pleaded guilty to a felony count of misbranding OxyContin, by playing down its addictive and abusive side effects. The company and its executives were fined $634 million.