The “12-Hour” Pain Relief Pill

Priya Venugopal ‘21

In 1996, Purdue Pharma’s OxyContin made its debut in the market with a bold marketing claim: The painkiller provides “smooth and sustained pain control all day and all night.” Racking in $31 billion, OxyContin quickly became a bestseller in the country. However, as illustrated in their released confidential records, Purdue Pharma knew their major declaration was in truth, a ploy. 


What differentiated OxyContin from the market’s brand and generic alternatives? The idea that a short-term painkiller taken every 3 to 4 hours could be improved with one taken every 12 hours. Disseminating this idea in every magazine advertisement and commercial allowed, the company raised the price of the painkiller to an absurd number; in fact, at its peak, one pill of OxyContin costed nearly 19.8 times more than the generic oxycodone, which averages $0.33 per 15 mg pill.


Even before the drug was released to the American public, clinical trials proved that an overwhelming majority of people were not receiving the full 12 hours of relief. When off the narcotic, many users felt the intensity of withdrawal, wanting nothing more than relief from the symptoms. As a result, many began a cycle of abuse in an attempt to mitigate the agonizing pain. That is the irony: this painkiller, which soon became one of the most abused medications in U.S. history, was arguably causing more pain than relief.


According to the U.S. government’s National Survey on Drug Use and Health, over the past two decades, OxyContin has been the source of 190,000 deaths with over 7 million Americans abusing the drug since its release.


Furthermore, part of Purdue Pharma’s aggressive marketing campaign was to target labor-intensive workers with unpaid sick leaves. For example, a construction worker whose back was aching was left with two choices: stay at home and not get paid or get some pills from a doctor. Vaira Harik, a manager at the Barnstable County Department of Human Services, aptly explained to Vice, “They need to keep their job, and cannot afford not to go to work and cannot afford to be in pain.” These OxyContin users disproportionately represent those who are financially unstable, barely getting by even with a job. These OxyContin users are people whose loss of one day’s pay could translate to not having food on the table for the next few days. 


With time, however, people started recognizing the overwhelming links between OxyContin and opioid overdoses. But these new associations accusations have not stopped Purdue Pharma.


In recent news, The New York Times revealed that around $1 billion in wire transfers have been linked to the Sackler family, the founders and current owners of Purdue Pharma, leaving many with the question if their $3 billion settlement is enough. In fact, is any amount adequate enough to make up for the families ruined and lives lost?