After early opioid lawsuit against Purdue Pharma, competitors ramped up marketing

By: - October 19, 2023 10:49 am
opioid pills have been overprescribed in the past

Prescriptions for oxycodone and other opioids fueled an epidemic nationwide. (John Moore/Getty Images)

For some pharmaceutical companies, a 2007 Kentucky lawsuit against Purdue Pharma for its role in the opioid crisis appeared to be less of a warning than a business opportunity.

That’s according to a recently published University of Washington study that found prescription opioid companies competing with Purdue, the maker of OxyContin, increased marketing efforts after the state of Kentucky filed the lawsuit. The case, which centered on deceptive marketing practices, eventually settled in 2015.

While Purdue Pharma’s spending to promote OxyContin decreased significantly after the Kentucky settlement, competing companies increased their spending, including in areas where the opioid crisis was known to be severe.

Between 2014 and 2015, Purdue sales representatives spent $1.5 million on food and beverages during visits to promote OxyContin to prescribers. That number dropped by 94% to $54,000 between 2016 to 2017.

At the same time, competing companies increased their spending by 160% from 2016 to 2017.

Many economists have long believed the threat of economic costs — such as lawsuits — can deter questionable industry practices and spark positive social change, the study’s researchers write. But the new findings suggest otherwise.

David Tan, co-author of the study and a UW business professor, told the Standard he was surprised by the conclusion.

“They not only increased their marketing of their own competing opioids, but they did so specifically targeting prescribers of OxyContin,” Tan said.

However, since 2017, Purdue Pharma and other firms have filed for bankruptcy amid thousands of opioid-related lawsuits.

The wave of litigation and settlements, encompassing a broader range of industry behavior, “served as a much more severe warning” that at least “tempered behavior on the part of prescription opioid firms,” according to Tan.

He has another study coming out that will analyze the impact of those cases, which include lawsuits by the state of Washington, King County and the city of Seattle.

Opioid overdoses have surged in Washington in recent years, rising faster than anywhere else in the nation and more than doubling from 2014 to 2022. 

“It took litigation on a national and industry-wide scale to approach something like the power of regulation,” Tan told the University of Washington’s Office of News and Information. “Unfortunately, it’s still not technically regulation.”

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Grace Deng
Grace Deng

Grace Deng joined the Washington State Standard shortly after graduating from Northwestern University in June 2023. Grace, who currently lives in Tacoma, is a local Washingtonian who was born and raised in Snohomish County. She has previous experience covering statehouse politics and policy for the Minnesota Reformer and the USA TODAY Ohio Network, which includes the Columbus Dispatch, the Cincinnati Enquirer and the Akron-Beacon Journal.