You know the dealer, the dealer is a man
With the love grass in his hand
Oh but the pusher is a monster
Good God, he’s not a natural man
The dealer for a nickel
Lord, will sell you lots of sweet dreams
Ah, but the pusher ruin your body
Lord, he’ll leave your, he’ll leave your mind to scream
– The Pusher – lyrics and music by Hoyt Axton
The Connecticut maker of the powerful painkiller OxyContin and three of its current and former executives pleaded guilty Thursday to misleading the public about the drug’s risk of addiction, a federal prosecutor and the company said.
Purdue Pharma L.P., as well as its president, top lawyer and former chief medical officer will pay $634.5 million in fines for claiming the drug was less addictive and less subject to abuse than other pain medications, U.S. Attorney John Brownlee said.
The plea agreement settled a national case and came two days after the Stamford, Conn.-based company agreed to pay $19.5 million to 26 states and the District of Columbia to settle complaints that it encouraged physicians to overprescribe OxyContin.
“With its OxyContin, Purdue unleashed a highly abusable, addictive, and potentially dangerous drug on an unsuspecting and unknowing public,” Brownlee said. “For these misrepresentations and crimes, Purdue and its executives have been brought to justice.”
Purdue spokesman James Heins objected to the suggestion of a connection between the plea agreement and individuals’ abuse of OxyContin.
“We promoted the medicine only to health-care professionals, not to consumers,” he said in a statement.
Purdue learned from focus groups with physicians in 1995 that they were worried about the abuse potential of OxyContin. The company then gave false information to its sales representatives that the drug had less potential for addiction and abuse than other painkillers, the U.S. attorney said.
Ken Jost of the Justice Department’s Office of Consumer Litigation said this case should put pharmaceutical companies on notice that they won’t be able to get away with breaking the law to make a profit.
“The things that they plot in their boardrooms, the things that they do behind closed doors will not stay behind closed doors,” Jost said. “We have the people, we have the resources. We’ll take the time and we’ll take the effort to find out what they did and how they did it.”
Purdue Pharma said it accepted responsibility for its employees’ actions.
“During the past six years, we have implemented changes to our internal training, compliance and monitoring systems that seek to assure that similar events do not occur again,” the company said in a news release.
OxyContin, a trade name for oxycodone, is a time-release painkiller that can be highly addictive. Designed to be swallowed whole and digested over 12 hours, the pills can produce a heroin-like high if crushed and then swallowed, snorted or injected.
From 1996 to 2001, the number of oxycodone-related deaths nationwide increased 400 percent while the annual number of OxyContin prescriptions increased nearly 20-fold, according to a report by the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration. In 2002, the DEA said the drug caused 146 deaths and contributed to another 318.
In western Virginia, the state medical examiner’s office listed oxycodone as the cause of death of 228 people from 1996 to 2005, a spokeswoman for Brownlee said.