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Purdue Pharma, maker of OxyContin, backs off aggressive marketing amid lawsuits

Opioid maker backs off aggressive marketing
Opioid maker Purdue Pharma backs off aggressive marketing 02:21

NEW YORK -- Monday marked a change of culture for Purdue Pharma, the drug company that makes OxyContin and other opioids. The company will no longer market those drugs to doctors and is laying off half its sales force.   

After years of marketing testimonial videos and handing doctors pamphlets claiming only about 1 percent of opioid users become addicted, Purdue Pharma -- the nation's largest opioid manufacturer – corrected its marketing in 2001. But in 2007 the company was forced to pay $600 million and three Purdue executives pleaded guilty to misleading regulators about the risk of addiction. 

Today, the company faces hundreds of civil lawsuits claiming it "overstated the benefits" and "understated the risks of opioid use" through 2016. The company denies these claims, but now says it will back off aggressive marketing techniques, no longer sending sales representatives to doctors' offices to push opioids.

While these techniques helped opioid sales spike in the last two decades, so too did the number of opioid overdose deaths. In 1999, there were 4,000 deaths, a number that spiked to 32,000 in 2016 -- an increase of more than 700 percent. OxyContin, the brand name version of the drug oxycodone, made the company billions of dollars and was at the heart of the crisis.  

"The genie is out of the bottle," said Andrew Kolodny, the co-director of the Opioid Policy Research Collaborative at Brandeis University. He said he doesn't take Purdue's motivations at face value.

Andrew Kolodny CBS News

"I don't think that this is coming out of good intentions. I think sales that for OxyContin have already been declining," Kolodny said. "There is generic competition."

Purdue is currently facing multiple lawsuits filed by more than 400 cities and states alleging the drug maker misrepresented OxyContin's risks, creating an expensive public health crisis taxpayers had to handle. Late last year, they were asked to end their aggressive push with OxyContin and refused.

As Mississippi's attorney general in 1994, Michael Moore sued big tobacco to recoup the state's cost of treating smoking-related illnesses. He's now helping to sue Purdue.

"These guys and others created this huge opioid epidemic in our country, and they need to clean up the mess," Moore said.

While Purdue said they now want to be part of the solution, and denies any wrongdoing, sources tell CBS News that Purdue was already wearing out its welcome in doctor's offices, and had moved on to targeting insurance companies and other parts of the health care system to drive sales of OxyContin.

The offices of Purdue Pharma, the pharmaceutical company that makes the painkiller, OxyContin., are seen Thursday, July 26, 2001, in Stamford, Conn.  DOUGLAS HEALEY/AP

This story has been updated to include additional information about previous legal action involving Purdue Pharma.

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