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OxyContin Marketing Tactics Go On Trial Today

Nov 1, 2004 | Charleston Gazette

Today, lawyers working for the state and a massive drug maker will begin picking the jurors who may determine the future of the painkiller OxyContin in West Virginia.

The state’s lawyers come to McDowell County’s old stone courthouse seeking tens of millions of dollars they say OxyContin’s maker, Purdue Pharma, owes West Virginia for dishonestly marketing the pain pill.

When the trial begins, the state’s lawyers plan to tell jurors that the company kept doctors, pharmacists and patients in the dark about the morphinelike drug’s addictive qualities because it wanted to sell more pills, according to court filings and hearing transcripts.

The company’s lawyers say cancer patients and other chronic pain sufferers have found relief after using the pill.

If the jurors in this trial side with the state, the company may stop selling the drug in West Virginia, lawyer Timbera Wilcox told McDowell Circuit Judge Booker Stephens in a memorandum filed last month.

“Truly, at the end of the day this case is really about West Virginians continuing to get state-of-the-art†pain medication, Wilcox said in a recent telephone interview.

OxyContin is the world’s best-selling painkiller. Purdue Pharma sold $1.9 billion worth of the drug last year,

West Virginia Attorney General Darrell McGraw started this courtroom fight in 2001, about five years after Purdue Pharma began shipping OxyContin to West Virginia pharmacies.

By then, Purdue Pharma had turned the powerful opiate into a moneymaker. In 2001 alone, it sold $1 billion worth of OxyContin pills. West Virginia state agencies bought about $7.1 million worth of pills that year, according to state records.

Although the company put more oxycodone in OxyContin than other commonly abused painkillers, it said drug users were unlikely to pop them to get high because the pills released the oxycodone slowly over a 12-hour period.

The company was wrong. Drug users figured out that by crushing the pills, they could ingest a tablet’s entire oxycodone content at once. By the time McGraw filed his lawsuits, nearly half of the West Virginians in rehabilitation trying to beat an addiction to prescription pills named OxyContin as their drug of choice, according to state records.

For years, Purdue Pharma has maintained that it is not responsible for the problems caused by OxyContin abuse.

“It is safe and effective when used as intended, and that is what is intended by Purdue,†said Wilcox, one of the company’s lawyers.

The state’s lawyers say the company could have actually prevented some of the problems caused by OxyContin abuse by telling doctors, pharmacists and patients more about the drug.

For instance, the company did not mention some of the drug’s potentially fatal side effects in a handful of advertisements it ran in medical journals in recent years, according to the Food and Drug Administration. The FDA forced the company to pull the ads.

The company also told its sales force in West Virginia to downplay the drug’s addictive qualities, according to William Gergley. He was the company’s district manager for West Virginia and western Pennsylvania for more than two decades. Purdue Pharma fired him in 2000.

“They told us to say things like it is ‘virtually’ nonaddicting,†Gergely told the South Florida Sun-Sentinel last year. “That’s what we were instructed to do. It’s not right, but that’s what they told us to say.â€

The state’s lawyers say that Purdue Pharma should pay for these and other misleading marketing practices. They have not said how much they will ask the jury to award the state, but have said that their request could equal or exceed the $30.5 million various state agencies have spent on OxyContin between 1996 and 2003.

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