ABINGDON, Va. – Purdue Pharma L.P., the maker of OxyContin, and three of its executives were ordered to pay a $634.5 million fine on Friday for misleading the public about the painkiller's risk of addiction.
U.S. District Judge James Jones levied the fine on Purdue, its top lawyer and former president and former chief medical officer after a hearing that lasted about four-and-a-half hours. The hearing included statements by numerous people who said their lives were changed forever by the addiction potential of OxyContin, a trade name for a long-acting form of the painkiller oxycodone.
Designed to be swallowed whole and digested over 12 hours, the pills can produce a heroin-like high if crushed and then swallowed, snorted or injected.
From 1996 to 2001, the number of oxycodone-related deaths nationwide increased fivefold while the annual number of OxyContin prescriptions increased nearly 20-fold, according to a report by the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration. In 2002, the DEA said the drug caused 146 deaths and contributed to another 318.
Michael Friedman, who retired in June as Purdue's president, general counsel Howard Udell and former chief medical officer Paul Goldenheim each pleaded guilty in May to a misdemeanor count of misbranding the drug for claiming that OxyContin was less addictive and less subject to abuse than other pain medications.
Of the total $634.5 million fine on Friday, $34.5 million was levied on those three.
Jones placed the company on probation for five years and each of the executives on probation for three years. He also ordered the three to perform 400 hours of community service related to prevention of prescription drug abuse.
Jones said he would have preferred to have the plea agreements call for spending money on education of those at risk of drug abuse and treatment of those who are addicted to OxyContin. But Jones said he would not reject the agreement.
"Many young people mistakenly believe today that prescription drugs are safer than other drugs," Jones said.
The fines are to be distributed to state and federal law enforcement agencies, the federal government, federal and state Medicaid programs, a Virginia prescription monitoring program and individuals who had sued the company. About $5 million will go toward a six-year company program to monitor compliance with the agreement.
Survivors of the victims want the Food and Drug Administration to reclassify OxyContin for use only for severe pain. The drug currently can be prescribed for moderate pain.
Purdue, based in Stamford, Conn., has said it accepted responsibility for its employees' actions and has put in place training and monitoring programs to ensure overpromotion of OxyContin doesn't happen again. But officials objected to any ties between the plea agreement and abuse of the drug.
Many of those who gave statements had spoken at a rally before the hearing.
"One of my main infuriations with that company is that for years they denied there was an epidemic," said Ed Bisch of Palm Coast, Fla.
"The first time I heard the word OxyContin was when I was told my 18-year-old son died of an overdose," said Bisch.
Bisch, who has a Web site called www.oxyabusekills.com, drove to the hearing with two other parents, including Lee Nuss, who held up an urn slightly larger than a pill bottle that she said contained her son's ashes.
"I feel you are legal drug users, nothing more than a large corporate drug cartel," Nuss said addressing the Purdue Pharma contingent.
The coal-mining region of southwest Virginia where the sentencing took place has had a number of oxycodone-related deaths -- 119 from 2003 through 2005, according to the state medical examiner's office.