ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:
Effective today, Purdue Pharma is no longer promoting its blockbuster painkiller OxyContin to doctors. In an open letter, the company has said it is doing more to fight the opioid crisis. The letter concludes, this is our fight too. Purdue faces lots of fights. States and cities across the U.S. have sued the drug company for contributing to the addiction epidemic. Sam Quinones has reported on Purdue Pharma for years. He's author of the book "Dreamland: The True Tale Of America's Opioid Epidemic." Welcome.
SAM QUINONES: Thanks for having me.
SHAPIRO: Purdue Pharma used to market OxyContin really aggressively. It's been less of that recently. What exactly is the change that's starting today?
QUINONES: My impression is that they are simply not going to be promoting it to doctors at all. They have been promoting it as a reasonable painkiller. And my impression is now that they will be ceasing that, which would be a big step for them - considering that I think it's one of the few drugs they actually have.
SHAPIRO: Why do you think they're doing it right now?
QUINONES: I think they are seeing a groundswell of concern across the country and communities everywhere because this is a problem. Opiate addiction is a problem all across the country from coast to coast. They're also seeing, of course, as you mentioned, dozens of lawsuits filed by states' attorneys general, by counties, by towns alleging that several companies, Purdue foremost among them, lead a kind of a campaign to dupe the public into believing that their drug was not addictive. And these lawsuits, particularly in the last - I would say - year and a half, have really gained steam as local entities, counties and towns, have seen themselves buckling under the cost of paying for the consequences of this epidemic and having done nothing to really create it - are looking for ways of paying for the increase in foster care that they now have to provide, the full jails, the courts that are that are overwhelmed with new addicts.
SHAPIRO: So do you think this change is likely to affect those lawsuits?
QUINONES: I doubt it. The lawsuits were filed based on what has gone on up to now. A lawyer could tell you better. But my feeling is that these lawsuits were - are based on evidence or facts they say they have that show that the company did this in the past - not what's going on today. I think it may be more a PR move, as a way of kind of softening feelings toward the company, because I can tell you in many parts of the country this company is very roundly hated.
SHAPIRO: Well, I was going to ask. Purdue Pharma is not ending sales of OxyContin. They just say they're going to stop marketing oxy. How much of a difference will that make?
QUINONES: It's hard to say because by now Purdue Pharma and OxyContin, they're household names. In any doctor's office, certainly everybody knows the drug. Most pain patients know the drug. It's not clear to me how much more promoting they actually have to do to get this drug well-known. It's also got a very bad reputation too. A lot of people are very wary of it. Doctors are very wary of it now, I think. And so what exactly is - how this will help? I'm not sure. They may have their own calculations as to what effect it will have.
SHAPIRO: How much money has this drug made for Purdue Pharma over the years?
QUINONES: Well, it's a private company. I'm not sure exactly. But estimates that I have read - between $35 and $40 billion in sales since the drug came out in 1996. It's basically the reason why the Sackler family, which owns Purdue, is one of the wealthiest families in America. Forbes magazine pegged it as one of the wealthiest families in America due almost entirely to the sales of OxyContin.
SHAPIRO: OxyContin is not the only addictive opioid out there. Other drug companies continue to sell addictive painkillers. How much of a difference does it make that this one company will no longer market this one drug? Do you think other drug companies will follow?
QUINONES: I suspect they may. I think it's more of a - kind of a bellwether of where this issue is going because when you talk about how we got into this, really Purdue Pharma is the company that led the way. Their promotions and their sales and their aggressive marketing really led the way into all this. And so people are now looking to say, well, look. We are turning away from that. We have learned our lesson. We want to be part of the solution - I think as they said in that statement that you read. I'm not sure how much effect it will actually have. And I think time will tell that this is a problem that is not going away. It's very deeply rooted now in American culture. And will this change in marketing and promotion mean much after the company's gone to such lengths to root this in America? I don't know. I guess we'll see.
SHAPIRO: Journalist and author Sam Quinones, thanks a lot.
QUINONES: My pleasure. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.