News Articles Text Version

Date 12/31/1999
News Source Newspaper
Headline OxyContin touted as virtually nonaddictive, newly released state
Article Text OxyContin touted as virtually nonaddictive, newly released state records show By Fred Schulte Staff Writer Posted March 6 2003 A former OxyContin sales manager says he used misleading marketing tactics to boost sales, including telling some doctors that the addictive narcotic was "non-habit forming." William Gergely, Purdue Pharma's district manager for West Virginia and western Pennsylvania for 27 years until he was fired in 2000, made the statements in an August interview with a Florida Attorney General's Office investigator, newly released records show. "They told us to say things like it is `virtually' non-addicting," Gergely told the South Florida Sun-Sentinel. "That's what we were instructed to do. It's not right, but that's what they told us to say." His statement is among the first to surface alleging Purdue Pharma executives may have played a role in directing their sales force to downplay addiction and safety concerns with the drug, which has been tied to hundreds of overdose deaths in recent years. "We were not aware of, nor have we seen, the record of the interview of Mr. Gergely by the Florida Attorney General's Office," said James Heins, the company's director of public affairs. "As a result, we cannot comment on any statements that he made in the interview." Heins also declined to answer written questions the newspaper posed about its marketing of OxyContin. He cited "proprietary information that the company does not disclose for competitive reasons" and pending lawsuits. Notes of Gergely's interview are among hundreds of pages of documents released to the Sun-Sentinel after the newspaper won a lawsuit to make them public. Late last month, Florida Attorney General Charlie Crist released seven years of OxyContin marketing plans, which showed that Purdue Pharma drove sales from $25 million in 1996 to $1.2 billion last year by persuading doctors to prescribe it for ailments ranging from low back pain to arthritis. In his interview with the attorney general's office, Gergely admitted using marketing materials in sales calls to doctors' offices that he did not think met U.S. Food and Drug Administration standards for objectivity. He said the company supplied him with the materials. Gergely is the only person the state talked to on a list of more than 100 former and current sales employees which Purdue Pharma turned over to the state in July as part of an investigation of OxyContin marketing. $2 million settlement Then Attorney General Bob Butterworth ended the inquiry in November when Purdue Pharma agreed to pay $2.1 million to help the state set up a computer databank to monitor prescription drug abuse. OxyContin is a brand form of the narcotic oxycodone, a drug similar to morphine. Its time-release system allows pain release for up to 12 hours with a single dose, far longer than competing drugs. Pain management specialists have praised the drug, particularly to help cancer patients. But abusers have thwarted the time-release feature by crushing and either injecting or snorting the pills. That unleashes the full dose at once, causing euphoria and sometimes death. Purdue Pharma spokesman Heins said the company has "very clear and strict" procedures that marketers must adhere to in promoting OxyContin. He said the company "has disciplined and terminated" sales people who violated these standards, but declined to say how many. Gergely, whose sales turf included West Virginia, where abuse of the drug became so common it was nicknamed "Hillbilly heroin," said in his statement that he "didn't know of anyone that has been disciplined or terminated for using unauthorized sales material." Two other current or former sales employees interviewed by the Sun-Sentinel corroborated Gergely's account. All three described a feverish sales campaign. They said salespeople were regularly sent voicemails from the company's Stamford, Conn., headquarters urging them to shatter previous records, for which they could count on being among the best-paid sales force in the industry. Gergely said he earned $238,000 in his final year -- a salary of $85,000 and the rest from bonuses, most of it tied to the exploding sales of OxyContin. Gergely, who supervised about 10 sales reps, said he was fired in April 2000 after a dispute over alleged discrimination against women. The veteran salesman told state investigators that two top Purdue executives attended a "launch'' sales meeting for OxyContin at which attendees were advised the drug was "non-habit forming." He said Jim Lang, Purdue Pharma vice president for sales and marketing and Russ Gasdia, national sales manager, were there, according to the state investigator's notes. Gergely also supplied the attorney general's office with a copy of an unapproved paper he said he used as part of his sales pitch. It is titled "The Role of Opiods in Chronic Pain: A Case for OxyContin," and was written by Gregory Holmquist, a pharmacist in Washington state. Holmquist told the Sun-Sentinel that he has given presentations on OxyContin to a number of groups that accepted grant money from Purdue Pharma, but had no knowledge of his work being used to spur sales. "If a sales rep was using this material he would have been using it on his own," he said. Gergely said the company encouraged sales agents to suggest that OxyContin's time-release feature would prevent addiction, even though all narcotics cause dependence over time. `It was deceptive' "You'd tell the doctor there is a study, but you wouldn't show it to him," he said. "I think it was deceptive." Other "patient education" materials Purdue Pharma turned over to the Florida Attorney General's Office appear to downplay risks of addiction. One is a pamphlet printed by "Partners Against Pain," a group funded at least partly by $4 million from Purdue Pharma in the past two years. The pamphlet was written for doctors to hand out to patients with questions about their use of OxyContin. Concerns that the drug is addictive are answered with: "Drug addiction means using a drug to get `high" rather than to relieve pain. You are taking opioid pain medication for medical purposes. The medical purposes are clear and the effects are beneficial, not harmful," the brochure states. Whether the brochure or other literature passed to patients or doctors complies with FDA regulations is unclear. The FDA doesn't require drug companies to gain approval of marketing materials. However, it can review sales guides and advertisements and order corrections. In January, for instance, the FDA admonished Purdue Pharma for failing to point out "serious, potentially fatal risks" of using OxyContin in advertisements placed in medical journals, and ordered the ads pulled. Purdue Pharma records show that in November 2001 the company took action to discourage its sales staff from profiting off doctors who illegally or improperly prescribed OxyContin. That month, the company told its sales force that any commissions from sales to a doctor who had been arrested or investigated for improper prescribing would be deducted from their bonuses. Purdue Pharma's marketing of OxyContin, and its plans to introduce a new narcotic painkiller once the FDA clears it, also face congressional scrutiny. Last week, House Energy and Commerce Committee Chairman W.J. "Billy" Tauzin, R-La, asked the company to turn over by March 21 a wide range of marketing records, including court depositions of salespeople and records describing the sales bonus plan. The committee also asked for Purdue Pharma's marketing plan for Palladone, a time-release version of the often-abused drug hydromorphone, also known as Dilaudid. Drug Enforcement Administration officials have told the FDA that abuse of Palladone could exceed OxyContin. Dilaudid has long been abused in South Florida, mostly because a small number of doctors have indiscriminately prescribed it to addicts. Staff Writer Nancy McVicar contributed to this report.