In September 2004, Forbes magazine published a Satel article under the headline, “OxyContin doesn’t cause addiction. Its abusers are already addicts.”
In an article for The Wall Street Journal headlined “Oxy Morons,” Satel defended the company. “The real public-health damage here comes from the pitched campaign conducted by zealous prosecutors and public-interest advocates to demonize the drug itself,” she wrote.
After Purdue and Dezenhall launched their “anti-story,” media reports of OxyContin addiction and abuse declined for several years. In 2001, there were 1,204 stories that included the words “OxyContin,” “abuse” and “Purdue” published in media outlets archived on the Nexis database. The number plummeted to 361 in 2002 and to 150 in 2006.
Purdue’s counterattack against an ambitious investigative series about OxyContin abuse may have contributed to that drop. An October 2003 series in the Orlando Sentinel, “OxyContin Under Fire,” found that Purdue’s aggressive marketing combined with weak regulation had contributed to “a wave of death and destruction.”
The series, however, was marred by several errors that were detailed in a front-page correction nearly four months later. The reporter resigned, and two editors on the series were reassigned. While acknowledging the mistakes, the newspaper did not retract the series, and its review upheld the conclusion that oxycodone was involved in a large number of the overdoses in Florida.
Dezenhall Resources, in an email, took credit for forcing the newspaper to issue the corrections. “Dezenhall’s efforts resulted in a complete front-page retraction of the erroneous 5-day, 19-part, front-page Orlando Sentinel series,” Hershow wrote in a 2006 email summarizing Dezenhall’s work for Purdue under the subject line “Success in Fighting Negative Coverage.”
Purdue officials and the company’s public relations agencies came up with a 13-point plan to generate media coverage of the errors. It included getting a doctor to talk about how the series “frightened and mislead (sic) the people of Florida” and having a pain patient write a newspaper opinion column on the subject. The Sentinel series, one Purdue official wrote to other company executives and Dezenhall’s Hershow, was an opportunity to let the country know about “all of the sensational reporting on OxyContin abuse over the past 4 years. The conclusion: this is the most overblown health story in the last decade!”
In the six years after Purdue challenged the Sentinel’s findings, the death rate from prescription drugs increased 84.2% in Florida. The biggest rise, 264.6%, came from deaths involving oxycodone. The state became a hotbed for inappropriate opioid prescribing as unscrupulous pain clinics attracted out of state drug seekers. The route traveled by many from small towns in Appalachia to the Florida clinics was nicknamed the “Oxycontin Express.”
Read the full article on ProPublica, a nonprofit newsroom that investigates abuses of power. This story is a collaboration between ProPublica and STAT.