Drugs: Profits Vs. Pain Relief

They've watched an epidemic of painkiller abuse sweep through their rural towns. Now fed-up residents of Appalachia are striking back against what they see as the chief scourge--OxyContin, a powerful prescription drug designed to relieve debilitating pain ("Playing With Painkillers," NEWSWEEK, April 9). In Virginia, disgruntled OxyContin users and their relatives have filed a $5.2 billion class-action lawsuit against the drug's maker, Purdue Pharma, charging that the company failed to adequately warn consumers of the risks of using an addictive opioid like OxyContin and that it marketed the drug irresponsibly in order to fuel $1 billion in sales last year alone. "They have done more to devastate our region than the Colombian drug lords ever thought of doing," says Abington, Va., lawyer Emmitt Yeary. Purdue calls the claims "completely baseless" and has vowed to fight the charges.

The lawsuit reaches out to virtually everyone whose life has been touched by the drug. Many of the plaintiffs claim they got hooked taking OxyContin exactly as their doctors prescribed it. Others were prescribed OxyContin when a milder drug would have done the job. Even users who suffered no ill effects can sign on, claiming a "risk of addiction." Relatives can join, too. According to the lawsuit, Carol Wagoner, 44, is now caring for the two young girls her daughter abandoned in the haze of her Oxy addiction. "Something needs to be done," Wagoner says. Scores of people nationwide have phoned Yeary to join the case. Lorraine Horton, whose son overdosed on Oxy, plans to call soon.

Next a Virginia judge will decide whether the lawsuit can go forward and exactly who has a legitimate claim. The plaintiffs want more than just cash. They're asking Purdue Pharma to set up local treatment programs. West Virginia Attorney General Darrell V. McGraw Jr. filed a similar lawsuit in early June, charging that Purdue Pharma marketed the drug deceptively to treat even minor pain. The state wants Purdue to ante up for rehab programs and to reimburse insurers for unnecessary prescriptions. To bolster his case, McGraw is collecting tales from doctors who say Purdue drug reps tried to strong-arm them by telling them that elderly patients would sue if they refused to prescribe OxyContin to treat common ailments like arthritis. It's a threat that doctors can't easily ignore. A California jury recently ordered a physician to pay $1.5 million for failing to prescribe adequate painkillers, including OxyContin, to a terminal cancer patient.

Though Purdue admits that OxyContin abuse has been a problem, it denies marketing the drug too aggressively. "Pain patients are undertreated," says Purdue spokesman Robin Hogen. The company has been working with federal officials to crack down on illegal OxyContin use. Purdue is also developing versions of the drug that would be harder to abuse, though it admits those are still years away from pharmacy shelves. One option in the meantime: the company could collaborate with the Food and Drug Administration to send a warning letter to doctors who prescribe OxyContin--helping to stop the drug's abuse while still putting a damper on legitimate pain.