Purdue Pharma‘s analgesic OxyContin was a blockbuster drug, raking in billions in revenue annually at its peak. From its launch in 1996 through 2021, OxyContin generated an estimated $35 billion in total revenue and over $21 billion in profit for Purdue. Those astronomical earnings also brought great wealth to owners the Sacklers, but at the steep cost of fueling the devastating opioid crisis.
The Rise and Dominance of OxyContin
Purdue Pharma first introduced OxyContin in 1996 as an extended-release formulation of the opioid oxycodone, promising more stable pain relief with reduced abuse potential. Through an aggressive marketing campaign aimed at physicians, OxyContin quickly became Purdue‘s flagship product. By 2000, over 1 million OxyContin prescriptions were written annually, rocketing up to nearly 7 million by 2001. OxyContin represented over 80% of Purdue‘s total prescription opioid sales within just a few years.
OxyContin‘s Blockbuster Revenue Growth
OxyContin quickly became a blockbuster drug for Purdue Pharma, generating billions in sales revenue each year:
- In 1996, OxyContin made $48 million in sales in its debut year
- By 2000, annual revenue shot up to $1.1 billion
- In 2010, the peak of OxyContin sales, revenue hit $3.1 billion
- Even as scrutiny grew, the drug still produced $1.7 billion for Purdue in 2018
Overall OxyContin revenue exceeded $35 billion from launch through 2021, with billions more in profit.
Massive Profits Despite "Nonprofit" Status
As a privately-held company, Purdue does not disclose its profit figures. But simple math shows OxyContin accounted for the lion‘s share of profits.
- In 2007 alone, OxyContin generated $2.8 billion in revenue, while Purdue‘s total profit was estimated at $2.8 billion.
- Experts calculate OxyContin delivered over 95% of Purdue‘s profits through the 2000s.
In total, Oxycontin profits are estimated at $21 billion – with the bulk going to the Sacklers as sole shareholders.
The Sacklers Reaped Billions from OxyContin Sales
The Sackler family, as Purdue Pharma‘s owners, benefitted tremendously from OxyContin‘s success. Their net worth skyrocketed in lockstep with OxyContin revenue:
- As of 2016, the Sackler family‘s collective net worth stood at an estimated $13 billion.
- A Congressional investigation in 2021 found the Sacklers still held $11 billion in wealth.
- From 2008 to 2018 alone, the Sacklers reportedly took in over $10 billion from Purdue as personal distributions and dividends.
The Sacklers directed aggressive OxyContin marketing for years, increasingly concerning employees. But profits kept soaring.
Aggressive Sales Drove the Opioid Crisis
How did Purdue drive the stunning rise in OxyContin revenue and prescriptions? An aggressive and at times misleading marketing campaign aimed at physicians.
Purdue aggressively promoted OxyContin through approaches like:
- Pushing "off-label" prescribing for chronic non-cancer pain.
- Deploying an army of sales reps to visit doctors over 770,000 times.
- Offering lucrative incentives to physicians for OxyContin talks.
- Minimizing addiction and abuse risks in marketing materials.
Internal documents reveal Purdue executives knew OxyContin was widely abused. Yet the campaigns continued.
The Human Impact of the Crisis
While Purdue counted profits, Americans suffered. As OxyContin prescriptions soared in the 2000s, so too did opioid addiction, overdoses, and deaths. Some key statistics:
- From 1999 to 2019, over 500,000 people in the U.S. died from opioid overdoses.
- In 2020, 75% of 90,000 opioid overdose deaths involved prescription opioids.
- As of 2019, over 2 million Americans suffer from prescription opioid disorder.
Behind each number is a tragic human story. Like 16-year-old Amelia Stewart of Florida, who died of an OxyContin overdose in 2001 before even graduating high school.
Lawsuits Over Deceptive Marketing Practices
In the early 2000s, reports of OxyContin misuse, diversion and overdose deaths began mounting. By 2004, Purdue had to pay $600 million in fines for misleading regulators. By 2007, the company pled guilty to criminal charges of falsely marketing OxyContin.
Thousands of lawsuits followed, brought by cities, counties, states, tribes, hospitals and more. Accusations included:
- Misrepresenting OxyContin‘s addiction and abuse risk
- Targeting inappropriate high-dose prescribing
- Failing to report suspicious OxyContin orders
- Contributing to the opioid epidemic through deception
By 2021, over 3,000 plaintiffs filed OxyContin/opioid claims against Purdue. Litigation costs had reached an estimated $2 billion annually.
Bankruptcy Filing and Legal Wrangling
Crushing litigation forced Purdue to file for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection in September 2019. This allowed the company to negotiate a mammoth settlement agreement.
Key terms of Purdue‘s proposed deal included:
- $4.5 billion payment from Purdue to plaintiffs.
- $3 billion minimum contribution from the Sacklers.
- Establishing a "public benefit company" to continue selling OxyContin ethically.
25 states and D.C. opposed the deal, unsatisfied with Sackler immunity. In late 2021, a judge halted the plan over improper release of the Sacklers. Talks continue, but many states now simply name the Sacklers directly in lawsuits.
OxyContin Use Declines, Lawsuits Continue
Under tighter regulations since 2017, OxyContin prescriptions fell over 40% by 2021. But Purdue still made $1.5 billion on the drug that year.
Hundreds of active suits over OxyContin still name the Sacklers. A national settlement remains complex with so many plaintiffs and legal variables in play. But the reckoning for Purdue and especially the Sacklers is far from over.
A Cautionary Tale of Profits Over Ethics
Purdue Pharma ultimately reaped over $35 billion in OxyContin revenue. The Sacklers pocketed billions more in personal wealth. But at what cost? Their relentless drive for profits helped spawn a historic public health crisis of addiction and death.
No victims or damages award can restore lost lives. Yet the ongoing legal battles represent a hope for justice and accountability. OxyContin offers a sobering lesson for pharmaceutical companies everywhere. Let‘s remember people over profits.