Years ago, after the Surgeon General’s warnings began to depress domestic cigarettes sales and manufacturers had to pay $246 billion to settle health-related lawsuits, the tobacco industry made a critical strategic move: Cigarette manufacturers began shifting their focus from the U.S. to overseas markets, where consumers were less aware or concerned about the health implications of smoking.
Philip Morris International, one of the premier U.S. cigarette producers, separated from its parent company, Altria, in 2008 and now sells its tobacco products only outside the U.S.
Now the manufacturer of OxyContin, the highly controversial and potentially lethal painkiller, appears to be borrowing a page from the tobacco industry.
OxyContin is among a handful of powerful opioids at the center of a nationwide drug addiction crisis that has led to the overdose deaths of more than 200,000 people over the past decade. Once the painkiller of choice among U.S. consumers, OxyContin created a generation of addicts who risked their lives by abusing the drug.
Senior public health officials and others eventually began to discourage primary care physicians from prescribing the opioids for chronic pain, although it was too late for many. Prescriptions for OxyContin have plunged nearly 40 percent since 2010, which caused its Connecticut-based manufacturer, Purdue Pharma, to lose billions in revenue.
The Los Angeles Times reported over the weekend that the owners of the company, members of the Sackler family, “are pursuing a new strategy” for salvaging their product: marketing it to consumers in Latin America, the Middle East, Africa and other regions unfamiliar with the inherent risks and human costs of making excess use of the painkiller.
The global enterprise has been rebranded as Mundipharma, and the overseas operation is utilizing some of the same aggressive marketing practices that made OxyContin a big hit for so many years in the U.S. After its launch of OxyContin in 1996, Purdue Pharma encouraged doctors to prescribe the drug for all types of pain while downplaying the risk of addiction.
Over the years, Purdue Pharma grew into a business with a net worth of $14 billion, according to Fortune, thanks largely to OxyContin sales.
Now, in China, Brazil and elsewhere, the company is running seminars for doctors where they urge physicians to disregard or discount excessive fear about opioids, according to the newspaper. They are also sponsoring “public awareness campaigns” in which they urge people to come to grips with their chronic pain. And in some cases consumers are being offered discounts to make the drug more affordable.
U.S. Surgeon General Vivek H. Murthy is counseling public health officials overseas to “be very careful” with opioid medication and to learn from America’s huge mistakes with the drug. He added that he would be “very cautious” about marketing these high risk medications.