Safely and effectively relieving a patient’s pain has been an elusive goal for doctors everywhere because painkillers are notorious for their addictive nature or unforeseen side effects. That’s why doctors and patients alike were intrigued when a new drug named OxyContin came out in the 1990s. It was touted as both effective and less addictive than other drugs currently on the market.
However, more than 20 years after it was approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, OxyContin has become a key culprit in the deadly opioid epidemic now plaguing the United States.
OxyContin has made drugmaker Purdue Pharma more than $35 billion in sales over the last two decades thanks to aggressive marketing tactics and potentially illegal practices. Now, states across the country and victims of OxyContin addiction are filing lawsuits against Purdue Pharma.
What is OxyContin?
OxyContin is an opioid painkiller. It is the branded name for a slow-release formula of the generic drug oxycodone. OxyContin is prescribed to patients experiencing moderate to severe pain. The drug is most commonly prescribed to those with pain caused by severe arthritis, sickle cell disease, cancer, or nerve damage.
When taken as prescribed, OxyContin can be safe for patients and will effectively treat pain. Because the formula is timed-release, it works around the clock and prevents the user from having to take excessive doses.
OxyContin’s effects on the body and mind require further exploration, but the oxycodone in the drug alters the perception of pain by targeting the central nervous system. OxyContin also binds to opioid receptors in the brain and releases dopamine, which makes the user feel pleasant and euphoric.
The recommended starting dosage1 for OxyContin is a 10 mg tablet taken by mouth every 12 hours, though the dosage may be higher among those with an opioid tolerance.
OxyContin Side Effects
Users of OxyContin may experience side effects even while taking the recommended dosages. According to Purdue Pharma, some of the most common side effects1 include:
- Abdominal pain
Other more serious side effects can also occur. These include but are not limited to:
- Respiratory issues
- Fast heartbeat
- Chest pain
- Swelling of face, throat, or tongue
- Mental changes
- Stiff muscles
- Trouble walking
Patients should ask their doctors for a full list of possible side effects.
Early History of OxyContin
Oxycodone, the central ingredient of OxyContin, dates back to the early 20th century. The first clinical use of oxycodone was documented in 1917, but it wasn’t introduced to the United States for another two decades.
In 1991, pharmaceutical company Purdue Pharma had changed its strategy to focus entirely on pain management medication. By 1995, Purdue Pharma introduced a new medication containing oxycodone called OxyContin. It was approved2 by the FDA in December of that year.
At the time of its release, OxyContin was billed as a less addictive drug than other opioids because of its time-release formula. The FDA and doctors believed the marketing of OxyContin as less addictive because another controlled-release formula of morphine called MS Contin had been approved for about eight years without widespread reports of abuse.
Between 1996 and 2000, sales of OxyContin grew from $48 million to $1.1 billion, but reports of OxyContin abuse among users had already begun. Newspapers and other publications ran stories about the dangers of the drug and how it was being abused. In 2000, the Pike County, Kentucky coroner reported nearly 20 deaths related to OxyContin.
In the following years, media coverage and easy access led to a drastic increase in the use and abuse of OxyContin. By 2004, OxyContin was the most-abused drug3 in the United States. OxyContin would eventually become one of the most-abused prescription drugs in history and is now at the center of the opioid crisis.
OxyContin Addictions Signs
Countless people have started taking OxyContin recreationally. Even those who took it for pain began to develop a tolerance and needed higher and higher doses. According to DrugAbuse.com,4 those who have become addicted to OxyContin may show some of these signs:
- Dry mouth
- Change in behavior
- Weight loss
- Severe itching
- Extreme drowsiness
- Mood swings
- Memory problems
- Sleep apnea
- Pinpoint pupils
Purdue Pays One of Largest Settlements in History
The 2013 National Survey on Drug Use and Health5 found that around 1.9 million people in the United States are addicted to opioids like OxyContin, and dozens of people overdose on opioids every day.
To combat the growing epidemic, the U.S. government and individual states began investigating opioid manufacturers like Purdue Pharma.
In 2007, the U.S. Justice Department pursued charges against Purdue and three individuals within the company over misbranding OxyContin as a less addictive drug than rival medications. Purdue Pharma agreed to pay6 more than $600 million in fines to the government in one of the largest settlements ever made by a drug company.
The government claimed that Purdue used aggressive marketing tactics by promoting OxyContin to doctors and advertising the powerful narcotic as a safer alternative. As part of the settlement, Purdue acknowledged that it had marketed and promoted OxyContin “with the intent to defraud or mislead.”
States File Purdue Pharma OxyContin Lawsuits
Along with the federal government taking action against Purdue, several state and local governments have also filed lawsuits. Kentucky filed a lawsuit over the widespread abuse of OxyContin in 2007 and settled for $24 million in 2015.
In January 2017, the City of Everett, WA7 filed a lawsuit against Purdue claiming it allowed OxyContin to be funneled through the black market and failed to act based on terms set in the 2007 settlement.
Alabama also filed a lawsuit against Purdue in February 2018 over allegations it fueled the opioid epidemic with deceptive marketing practices.
“It will take years to undo the damage but an important first step we must take is to hold the parties responsible for this epidemic legally liable for the destruction they have unleashed upon our citizens,” Alabama Attorney General Steve Marshall said at the time.8
Shortly after Alabama filed the lawsuit, Purdue announced9 it was no longer promoting OxyContin. Some doctors10 said the announcement came 20 years too late and that Purdue continued its deceptive practices even after it was hit with $600 million in fines.
As of March 2018, there were more than 400 pending cases in the multidistrict litigation related to prescription opiates under U.S. District Judge Dan Polster of the Northern District of Ohio. Experts anticipate more lawsuits to be filed against drugmakers like Purdue Pharma in the coming months.