How OxyContin Became the Most Dangerous and Hottest Selling Narcotic in History

Story at-a-glance -

  • “OxyContin: Time Bomb” tells the story of how this painkiller became the most widely prescribed, abused, and profitable narcotic in history
  • Purdue Pharma ran an unprecedentedly aggressive marketing campaign to brainwash physicians that OxyContin was the new “miracle pill”
  • In 2007, Purdue pled guilty to deceptive marketing and was fined $600 million, but six years later, FDA allowed them to release a new version of the drug
  • OxyContin is a gateway drug to heroin, leading millions down the path of heroin addiction, methadone dependence, overdose, and death

By Dr. Mercola

Narcotic painkillers have become a serious problem due to their abuse potential and adverse health effects. But one narcotic stands out above the rest for its meteoric rise in popularity—followed by an equally impressive dive into disfavor.

OxyContin is a narcotic drug, manufactured by Purdue Pharma, and has been described as the “most dramatically successful” of the opioid drugs. If the measure of success is its marketing campaign, then Oxy definitely takes the gold.

The Canadian documentary “OxyContin: Time Bomb” tells the story of how Purdue Pharma steamrolled its way into the marketplace with this dangerous drug, preying on vulnerable pain sufferers and the physicians trying to help them.

Canada is spending more than 10 billion dollars a year on narcotic pain pills—and hundreds of millions more on the addictions they cause. However, Americans may have them beat.

According to the American Society of Interventional Pain Physicians, Americans consume 80 percent of the world’s pain pills.1 Misleading pain statistics are used to push increasingly stronger narcotics into the marketplace.

Since OxyContin was introduced in 1996, Canada has recorded the second-highest number of prescription opioid painkiller addictions and the world's second-highest death rate from overdoses. In the US, narcotic overdose deaths now surpass deaths from murders and fatal car accidents.

The Tiny Time-Released Time Bomb

As soon as it was released, Purdue Pharma hailed OxyContin as its new “miracle pill” for pain sufferers. Drug company representatives told physicians and patients OxyContin was safer than other narcotics because it was time-released, so there was essentially no potential for abuse—but nothing could’ve been farther from the truth.

OxyContin is the time-released version of oxycodone, which is the active drug in painkillers such as Percodan and Percocet. Tolerance builds quickly, so many OxyContin users need ever-increasing doses for the same effect. When their dose “maxes out,” some desperate patients turn to the streets.

Just a few years after its introduction, OxyContin was one of the hottest street drugs available, with addicts chewing or snorting or injecting them for an incomparable—and very dangerous—high, which users compare to heroin.

In fact, OxyContin has been found to be the gateway drug to heroin.2 Over the past five years, heroin deaths have increased by 45 percent—an increase largely blamed on the rise of addictive prescription drugs such as OxyContin.

Because of its insatiable demand, some patients with legal prescriptions begin selling OxyContin tablets to drug dealers for a profit. The pharmaceutical company earned billions while watching their “miracle drug” turn ordinary citizens into hardened addicts and criminals.

How many people have died as a result of OxyContin? A firm number is difficult to ascertain. A variety of numbers have appeared in media reports, usually lacking citations or references, and many deaths involve a combination of drugs and alcohol.3

What is known is that narcotic overdose deaths have quadrupled in the last decade. Deaths from overdoses of drugs like hydrocodone (Vicodin), morphine, and oxycodone/OxyContin rose from 1.4 per 100,000 in 1999 to 5.4 per 100,000 in 2011.

In 2009, 1.2 million emergency department visits involved the “nonmedical use of pharmaceuticals or dietary stimulants” (which includes abuse). Oxycodone alone or in combination with other drugs accounted for 175,949 of those visits.4

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How Did OxyContin Get So Big, So Fast?

In its first year (1996), OxyContin earned Purdue Pharma $45 million in sales. By 2001, that number ballooned to $1.1 billion. Ten years later, sales totaled $3.1 billion with Oxy accounting for about 30 percent of the total painkiller market.

It didn’t take long for some to realize what a dangerous drug OxyContin was, but critics’ cries were drowned out by Purdue’s massive marketing campaign.

The drug company’s unprecedented “brainwashing” campaign got OxyContin propaganda into the hands of physicians and patients alike, and even into medical school classrooms, giving them hope that a safe, user-friendly pain treatment was finally available.

Purdue Pharma reps wined and dined physicians, showering them with expensive gifts and a blitz of flashy marketing materials, from brochures and videotapes to a promotional publication cleverly disguised as a “physician’s desk reference” for treating pain.5

In return, many salesmen profited handsomely from the bonuses, which in 2001 ranged from $70,000 to nearly $250,000. Purdue Pharma spent $200 million marketing OxyContin that year.6

OxyContin’s Fall from Grace

The boom lasted until 2007, when criminal charges were finally laid against Purdue Pharma for their “campaign of deception” aimed at boosting OxyContin sales. The company was fined 600 million dollars, and three company executives paid a total of $35.4 million in fines.7

By then, however, a great deal of damage had already been done. In Ontario, Canada alone, 36,000 were dependent on methadone at a cost of 200 million in taxpayer dollars—a 600 percent increase since OxyContin hit the market, and streets.

In the featured documentary, pain specialist Phil Berger of Toronto, Canada sums up the “perfect storm” of malfeasance that created this public health disaster:

“Confluence of unbelievably aggressive marketing by the pharmaceutical industry that sells these drugs, plus the inadequacy of education to medical students and physicians in training and the utter failure of regulatory bodies, the Colleges of Physicians and Surgeons, to reign in their membership and provide proper oversight to how their members are prescribing medications.”

Using AND Quitting OxyContin Can Make You Very Sick

Patients taking OxyContin experience a variety of adverse effects, including depression and mood swings, nodding off during the day, disrupted interpersonal relationships, and other problems. However, those wanting to discontinue the drug typically have a difficult time getting off of it, often becoming quite sick.

Sometimes, long-term methadone treatment is required to break severe OxyContin dependence, which has major risks of its own.8 Methadone, a synthetic form of opium that’s used to get people off heroin, may have surpassed heroin as the leading cause of narcotic deaths.9 This is but one of many serious problems stemming from the abuse of opioid drugs such as OxyContin.

There were no pain clinics when OxyContin came out—these were created largely in response to the massive addiction and overdose problems associated with this drug and others like it.  When your body is bathed around the clock in a sea of opiates, it becomes dependent on them, and withdrawing can make you very ill. OxyContin withdrawal typically includes symptoms such as:

  1. Anxiety, restlessness and insomnia
  2. Abdominal cramps, nausea and diarrhea
  3. Flu-like symptoms, including aching and chills
  4. Elevated blood pressure and heart rate
  5. Tremors, seizures and convulsions

‘OxyContin 2.0’

OxyContin’s patent expired in 2013. Normally, this opens the door for generics, but in this case, the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) banned generic versions of the original OxyContin and required drug makers to develop “abuse resistant” versions. In 2010, Purdue pulled original OxyContin from the market and introduced its own “abuse-resistant” form, which contains a polymer that supposedly makes it harder to crush and snort or inject.

That’s great news for Purdue—the patent on its “Oxy 2.0” is good until 2025. FDA essentially rewarded Purdue Pharma with a patent extension for a drug that injured and killed millions. In 2013, their new drug accounted for one-third of the prescription painkiller market, and with an average cost of $7.50 per pill, generated $2.8 billion in sales.10 And this new form may not be that abuse-resistant. About one-quarter of users claim they’ve figured out how to defeat the deterrent.11 Canadian physicians are reporting that OxyNEO—the new form Purdue is selling in Canada—is just as addictive as original OxyContin.12 Just another startling example of the collusion between the FDA and industry.

Effective Non-Drug Alternatives for Pain Relief

With all of the health risks associated with opioid painkillers, you'd be wise to exhaust other options before resorting to these dangerous drugs. Below I list some of the most effective non-drug alternatives for the treatment of pain. If you're in pain, I recommend trying these first, before even thinking about prescription painkillers of any kind—opiate-based or otherwise.

Medical cannabis Medical cannabis has a long history as a natural analgesic. At present, 23 US states have legalized cannabis for medical purposes.13 Its medicinal qualities are due to high amounts (about 10 to 20 percent) of cannabidiol (CBD), medicinal terpenes, and flavonoids. As discussed in this previous article, varieties of cannabis exist that are very low in tetrahydrocannabinol (THC)—the psychoactive component of marijuana that makes you feel "stoned"—and high in medicinal CBD.

The Journal of Pain,14 a publication by the American Pain Society, has a long list of studies on the pain-relieving effects of cannabis and would certainly seem worth the effort for anyone with chronic pain to utilize.

Just be sure to seek out a knowledgeable cannabis physician, as many have no idea of the proper dosing. If you are seriously considering medical cannabis for pain, it is imperative that you view my interview with Dr. Alan Frankel, who is one of the leading medical cannabis physicians in the US. He offers phone consultations if you have specific questions.
Eliminate or radically reduce processed foods Avoiding processed grains and refined sugars (particularly fructose) will lower your insulin and leptin levels thereby decreasing insulin and leptin resistance, which is one of the most important reasons why inflammatory prostaglandins are produced. That’s why stopping sugar and sweets is so important for controlling pain and many other chronic illnesses.
Take a high-quality, animal-based omega-3 fat My personal favorite is krill oil. Omega-3 fats are precursors to mediators of inflammation called prostaglandins. (In fact, that’s how anti-inflammatory painkillers work, they manipulate prostaglandins.)
Optimize your vitamin D level Optimizing your vitamin D level by getting regular, appropriate sun exposure and taking a vitamin D3 supplement can help reduce pain via a variety of mechanisms.
Emotional Freedom Technique (EFT) EFT is a drug-free approach for pain management. It borrows from the principles of acupuncture, in that it helps you balance out your subtle energy system. It helps resolve underlying, often subconscious, emotions that may be exacerbating your physical pain. By stimulating (tapping) well-established acupuncture points with your fingertips, you rebalance your energy system, which tends to dissipate pain.
K-Laser Class 4 Laser Therapy K-Laser therapy can be an excellent choice for many painful conditions, including acute injuries. By addressing the underlying cause of the pain, you may no longer need painkillers. K-Laser is a class 4 infrared laser therapy treatment that helps reduce pain and inflammation and enhances tissue healing—in both hard and soft tissues, including muscles, ligaments, and bones.

The infrared wavelengths used in the K-Laser allow for targeting specific areas of your body, penetrating deeply to reach areas such as your spine and hip. For more information about this groundbreaking technology and how it can help with chronic pain, please listen to my previous interview with Dr. Harrington.
Avoiding sitting and Foundation Training One of the most common types of pain is low back pain. Even I struggled with it for many years. The only thing that eliminated it was radically reducing the number of hours of sitting from 15 hours a day to less than one. Foundation Training exercises can help reverse the effects of sitting and reduce pain by strengthening and realigning your posture.
Chiropractic and naturopathic treatments Many studies have confirmed chiropractic treatment is much safer and less expensive than allopathic medical treatments, especially in regard to back pain. Qualified chiropractic, osteopathic, and naturopathic physicians are reliable, as they have received extensive training in factors underlying pain and inflammation, and management of musculoskeletal problems.
Acupuncture Research has discovered a "clear and robust" effect of acupuncture in the treatment of back, neck, and shoulder pain; osteoarthritis, and headaches.
Physical therapy and massage therapy Physical therapy and massage therapy have been shown to be effective for painful conditions such as torn cartilage and arthritis. Hot and cold packs may also be helpful.
Astaxanthin Astaxanthin is one of the most effective fat-soluble antioxidants known. It has very potent anti-inflammatory properties and in many cases works far more effectively than anti-inflammatory drugs. Higher doses are typically required; you may need 8 mg or more per day to achieve this benefit.
Ginger This herb has potent anti-inflammatory properties and has pain-relieving and stomach-settling effects. Fresh ginger works well steeped in boiling water as a tea or grated into vegetable juice.
Curcumin In a study of osteoarthritis patients, those who added 200 mg of curcumin a day to their treatment plan experienced reduced pain and increased mobility. A past study also found that a turmeric extract composed of curcuminoids blocked inflammatory pathways, effectively preventing the overproduction of a protein that triggers swelling and pain.15
Boswellia Also known as boswellin or "Indian frankincense," this herb contains specific active anti-inflammatory ingredients. This is one of my personal favorites as I have seen it work well with many rheumatoid arthritis patients.
Bromelain This enzyme, found in pineapples, is a natural anti-inflammatory. It can be taken in supplement form, but eating fresh pineapple, including some of the bromelain-rich stem, may also be helpful.
Cetyl myristoleate (CMO) This oil, found in fish and dairy butter, acts as a "joint lubricant" and an anti-inflammatory. I use a topical preparation myself to relieve ganglion cysts and a mild annoying carpal tunnel syndrome that pops up when I type too much on non-ergonomic keyboards.
Evening primrose, black currant, and borage oils These oils contain the essential fatty acid gamma linolenic acid (GLA), which is useful in the treatment of arthritic pain.
Topical cayenne (capsaicin) cream Chili peppers’ heat comes from capsaicin, a compound produced to protect them from fungal attack. If exposed to capsaicin for long enough, your pain nerve cells will become de-sensitized to the painful stimulus. Capsaicin is available in pain-relieving creams and patches, and has shown promise for relieving shingles pain, osteoarthritis, psoriasis symptoms, and more.
Mind-body techniques Practices such as yoga, meditation, hypnosis, biofeedback, Tai Chi, Qigong and other mind-body techniques can provide significant drug-free pain relief.
Grounding Grounding, or walking barefoot on the earth, may also reduce pain by combating inflammation.