Lawmakers say manufacturer of OxyContin not doing enough to stem abuse of painkiller

Wednesday, December 12th 2001, 12:00 am
By: News On 6

WASHINGTON (AP) _ The company that makes OxyContin is partly to blame for growing abuse of the prescription painkiller, says the head of the Drug Enforcement Administration.

DEA blames the drug for 117 deaths in 31 states in the past two years, and the agency believes it is the likely cause in 179 other deaths, DEA Administrator Asa Hutchinson said Tuesday.

He told a House Appropriations subcommittee that the ``aggressive marketing practices'' of Purdue Pharma L.P. have made the drug more readily available. The number of OxyContin prescriptions has grown steadily and reached 5.8 million last year.

He said Purdue Pharma gave its sales representatives incentives to sell large quantities of the drug and said the company took doctors on expense-paid retreats to encourage them to prescribe it.

Purdue Pharma executive vice president Paul Goldenheim rejected claims its marketing has been improper. ``That is simply not the case,'' he said.

Goldenheim said the company spends significant time educating doctors about proper use of the drug.

He noted that the company worked with the Food and Drug Administration to strengthen warnings on OxyContin package inserts and helped law enforcement officials develop placebo tablets used in sting operations.

OxyContin is a slow-release narcotic painkiller. It is widely prescribed for victims of moderate to severe chronic pain resulting from such problems as arthritis, back trouble and cancer.

One pill is designed to last 12 hours, but those who abuse OxyContin usually crush the medicine and then snort or inject it, producing a quick, heroin-like high.

Hutchinson said the problem was most severe in Eastern and Southern states, but is spreading elsewhere. ``I do not believe we've reached the peak of this problem yet,'' he said.

Rep. Hal Rogers, R-Ky., said the company ignored complaints from local pharmacists in Myrtle Beach, S.C., who said a pain clinic in town was prescribing too much OxyContin. Five people died of overdoses, according to government investigators.

The clinic closed in June after the DEA suspended the licenses of doctors there.

``People were dying, and your company did nothing,'' said Rogers, who represents an eastern Kentucky district where OxyContin abuse is widespread.

In a testy exchange, Goldenheim said his company ``can't stop them from providing our product.'' To which Rogers responded, ``We can.''

Rep. Frank Wolf, chairman of the Commerce, Justice, State and Judiciary Appropriations Subcommittee, said he would ask congressional auditors to investigate Purdue Pharma's marketing practices. Wolf, R-Va., said he doesn't want to ban the drug, but believes it can more closely regulated. Wolf's parents both died of cancer.

The hearing also featured testimony from law enforcement officials and families affected by the drug. The officials were united in their belief that greater controls are needed.

``I think certainly the supply has to be tightened up,'' said Tammy McElyea, a prosecutor in Lee County, Va. ``I don't think I should get this drug because I have a tooth pulled.''

She and other officials said they would support a national prescription monitoring plan to track who gives out OxyContin and who receives it.