After conquering North America, the company responsible for selling one of the most lethal legal drugs in the world is preparing to launch it globally. Should we be afraid?
Legal opiates killed more than 28,000 people in the United States in 2014 and a large part of the fault lies with OxyContin, a drug whose consumption has risen 261% since 2005.
At the end of the 90s, this legal drug produced by Purdue Pharma was the most popular opioid analgesic in the US. However, after a series of controversies, sales of the drug plummeted. From 2010 to 2016, OxyContin prescriptions decreased by 40%. This has meant billions of dollars in losses.
But despite these setbacks, it looks like we haven’t seen the last of OxyContin. Far from it in fact. The Sackler family, who own the company, have decided to try a new strategy: they’re going to launch the drug worldwide.
A group of companies, known as Mundipharma International, is working with Purdue Pharma to put the painkiller into medicine cabinets around the world, including Europe, Latin America, Asia, Africa, and the Middle East.
The group’s strategies for penetrating markets are especially intrusive.
To popularise opioids in countries that were previously unfamiliar with them, OxyContin bribes doctors and organises seminars for publicising the benefits of the medicine. The company’s goal seems to be to try and move on from their domestic troubles, which the former US Food and Administration commissioner David A. Kessler described as ‘one of the biggest mistakes in modern medicine.’
Mundipharma’s promotional videos claim ‘We’re only just getting started,’ conveniently sweeping under the carpet the multi-million dollar fine that Purdue had to pay in 2007, and the host of other problems that have plagued the company in recent years. Their aim is to conquer the world, and they seem determined that nothing will stop them.
The first obstacle they face is what they call ‘Opiophobia’. In many of the countries where OxyContin is trying to get a foothold, doctors are reticent to prescribe this type of medicine, and patients are not used to consuming it.
To attempt to change the attitudes of doctors and patients, Mundipharma hires people like Joseph Pergolizzi Jr., a Florida doctor who gives talks praising the good results of analgesics.
Consultants such as Pergolizzi are travelling the world, trying to convince internationally-recognised doctors to prescribe OxyContin.
‘We need to work more to educate so that people use analgesics more.’
Another key opinion leader spreading word about the painkiller is Ricardo Plancarte Sanchez, a Mexican doctor who holds a position at Mexico’s National Cancer Institute. Plancarte speaks at Mundipharma seminars in Mexico, although he says he’s not paid for his appearances.
‘We need to work more to educate so that people use analgesics more. If we educate our doctors as well as our patients, there will be better use of the drug than in the United States.’
The idea is to market OxyContin across the world as a great way of treating chronic pain. Untreated pain is a worldwide problem, particularly in poorer countries, and although it could be just as successfully solved with very cheap morphine, pharmaceutical companies prefer to market drugs such as OxyContin which are much more expensive, and therefore more profitable.
The search for new patients has reached Spain. This country is already a big consumer of analgesics: 18% of respondents in a recent survey said they’d taken them.
From 2007 to 2014, sales of OxyContin in Spain increased sevenfold. Ads developed and financed by Mundipharma have featured former Miss Spain María Reyes, as well as TV presenter Josep Lobató – who suffers from a serious neurological disease.
The ad, ‘Rebélate contra el dolor crónico’ (Rebel against the pain), was launched in 2013. Although it doesn’t specify the name of the drug, the objective behind the campaign is to encourage the use of analgesic opioids such as OxyContin.
‘If you follow the doctor’s instructions you won’t have any problems.’
Purdue Pharma and its international partners are also seeking to break into Asia. China has promised its 1.4 billion citizens health insurance by the end of the decade, and Mundipharma has moved quickly to establish itself in this juicy market.
This might be a challenge. China retains a deep-seated fear of opioids stemming from the aftermath of the 19th century’s Opium Wars.
The opioid controversy has even reached Cyprus, where OxyContin is already a recognised problem. The company began marketing the painkiller there in 2008. There are now thousands of addicts on the island, and six deaths have been linked to the drug.
The company is seeking to gain a foothold in a total of 122 new markets. It’s making good headway in some countries, while in others potentially problematic situations have already appeared on the horizon.
Will Purdue learn the lessons of what occurred in the US? Or is the opioid epidemic about to grow into a world-wide pandemic?