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Did Abbott Sales Reps Help Spur the Opioid Epidemic?

Sales staff downplayed drug’s addictive potential, court documents claim

A new report from STAT News describes how sales representatives from Abbott Laboratories may have played a central role in the current opioid epidemic in the U.S. through their aggressive tactics when marketing OxyContin (oxycodone) from 1996 to 2002.

The questionable tactics were revealed by a 2004 lawsuit that West Virginia brought against Abbot and Purdue Pharma, the maker of OxyContin. Documents from the case, including internal and external memos, allege that the companies inappropriately marketed OxyContin, causing users to become addicted to the opioid. The documents had been sealed, but STAT was able to obtain access after a court hearing.

In the West Virginia case, Purdue agreed to pay $10 million to the state. Neither Purdue nor Abbott admitted any wrongdoing.

According to the court documents, Abbott sales reps were instructed to downplay the threat of addiction with OxyContin and to make other claims to doctors that had no scientific basis. The sales reps from the two companies closely coordinated their efforts, met regularly to strategize, and shared marketing materials. Abbott devoted at least 300 sales reps to OxyContin as part of a co-promotional agreement with Purdue. Winning Abbott’s help was so important to Purdue that it agreed to indemnify the larger company from any legal costs that might arise from selling the drug, according to STAT.

Abbott heavily incentivized its sales staff to push OxyContin, offering $20,000 cash prizes and luxury vacations to top performers, the STAT article says. But some of the benefits the sales reps were instructed to highlight lacked scientific support, and in some cases were similar to claims made by Purdue.

In 2007, Purdue pleaded guilty to a criminal charge of misbranding OxyContin in an effort to mislead doctors and consumers. The company paid more than $600 million in fines.

The U.S. Department of Justice charged that Purdue’s sales representatives “falsely told some health care providers that OxyContin had less euphoric effect and less abuse potential than short-acting opioids.”

In an Abbott memo, sales reps were instructed that if a doctor expressed concern about the euphoria a patient was experiencing on the shorter-acting painkiller Vicodin, they should tell the physician, “OxyContin has fewer such effects.” And a “coaching sheet” prepared for Abbott sales personnel advised discussing the potential abuse of OxyContin only if a doctor brought it up, and to tell physicians that “street users” were misusing the drug, not “true pain patients.”

Under the agreement with Purdue, Abbott received 25% of all net sales, up to $10 million, for OxyContin prescriptions written by doctors its sales reps called on, and 30% of sales above $10 million, according to court records. From 2003 through 2006, after Abbott had stopped selling OxyContin, it still received a residual payment of 6% of net sales.

Sources: STAT News; September 22, 2016; and BioSpace; September 22, 2016.

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