OxyContin: The Opioid That Changed America

Rep. Abigail Spanberger, D-Va., gestures during a rally for Democratic gubernatorial candidate Terry McAuliffe in Richmond, Va., Friday, Oct. 15, 2021. (AP Photo/Steve Helber)

By Amie Knowles

August 16, 2022

A bill from Rep. Abigail Spanberger aims to combat skyrocketing rates of substance use disorder and addiction.

The year was 1996, and a new drug hit the market — OxyContin. 

Originally billed as something to help block pain for up to 12 hours, the opioid didn’t quite hold up to the hype for all patients. When the painkiller wore off around the eight-hour mark, people were diagnosed with “breakthrough” pain. To treat the discomfort, many doctors prescribed a double dose. 

To add to the issue, the promotion and marketing of OxyContin, a sustained-release oxycodone preparation, had major flaws. According to a study published in 2009, OxyContin sales grew from $48 million to almost $1.1 billion by 2000, and the availability correlated with increased abuse, diversion, and addiction.

The extra medication, coupled with false advertising about the “safety” of the narcotic, created a problem that continues to grip America nearly three decades later.

Marketing A Narcotic 

From the drug’s debut in 1996, up until 2001, manufacturer Purdue Pharma held more than 40 all-expenses paid conferences, hosting more than 5,000 physicians, pharmacists, and nurses. The point of the conferences, according to the 2009 study, was to recruit and train speakers for Purdue’s national speaker bureau.

Other factors also played an important role in creating the perfect storm for the brewing opioid crisis. Purdue pinpointed areas that already had high prescribing rates for opioids, more than doubled its internal sales force to 671 representatives, and also offered sizable bonuses to sales representatives in an effort to increase sales of OxyContin. 

There was also swag to go along with the drug, including OxyContin fishing hats, stuffed plush toys, coffee mugs with heat activated messages, luggage tags, music on compact discs, and pens with pullout dosage charts. Additionally, the company placed advertisements in medical journals, a price totaling $4.6 million in 2001 — far more than the $700,000 spent in 1996.

Some of the claims used to market OxyContin also held faulty messaging, according to a 2003 report from the United States General Accounting Office. In the past, Purdue’s “Partners Against Pain” website appeared to suggest that the drug could be used for unapproved ailments, and also failed to disclose pertinent information about the drug on some areas of the site. 

Dopesick creator Danny Strong, who produced the Hulu series based off of a book by the same title by Roanoke author Beth Macy, recently joined Rep. Abigail Spanberger (VA-07) for an Instagram LIVE event hosted by the congressional representative. He noted that when OxyContin first hit the market, phrases like “safe opioid” and “nonaddictive” were used to describe it.

“There [were] all these charts and experts and slogans and studies that said, ‘Oh, this drug, actually, is nonaddictive. This is a breakthrough opioid,’” Strong said. “And in fact, those studies, those charts, those experts, it was all lies. It was all fraud. It was a giant con. And what that con did was it created the opioid crisis that we’re all living through today.”

Opioid Impact 

Both Strong and Macy spoke about the impact the opioid crisis had on the nation. 

For Strong, the extent of the lies were so “shocking” “staggering,” and “maddening,” that he chose to show it in a way that would resonate with a larger audience — and that was through television.

“The actual deception itself…I thought if the people could see the manipulated blood charts, they could see where the famous ‘one percent study’ came from…that they could truly be shocked and also have an understanding of what happened to them, what happened to their loved ones,” Strong said. “That in fact, that they were victims of a lie, of deception, and that the institutions in our government that are supposed to protect us from a criminal company like Purdue Pharma — and I say criminal company literally, they are criminals, they have plead guilty to multiple felonies, twice — is that the institutions that are supposed to protect us from them, they failed us and they enabled them.”

Macy recalled the summer she spent talking to those involved with a case where a young man sold drugs to a former private school classmate, which then resulted in an overdose. The conversations revealed multiple holes in the addiction cycle.

“The idea was, if people could start to understand that, what it does to the brain and how little we do as a society, whether it be on the healthcare side or the criminal justice side, people are falling through the crack,” Macy said. “They’re falling through this giant chasm between do I treat it like a person with a treatable medical condition, or do I treat it like a criminal and a moral failure? And that’s where people die over and over. And they’re still dying over and over, more and more every month.”

Spanberger’s Solution

In March, Spanberger and other colleagues introduced the Summer Barrow Prevention, Treatment, and Recovery Act into the Democrat-led US House of Representatives. Named after a Central Virginian who lost her life to a fentanyl overdose after becoming addicted to opioids after a surgery, the bipartisan bill would combat skyrocketing rates of substance use disorder and addiction.

The bill would reauthorize substance use disorder programs including:

  • Overdose prevention
  • First responder training
  • Co-prescribing programs
  • Pregnant and postpartum substance use disorder treatment
  • Alternatives to opioids in emergency rooms

A former federal law enforcement officer and CIA case worker, Spanberger discussed the urgency of the bill with Strong and Macy.

“You know, we named it after one young woman in my district, but sadly and tragically, legislation has been motivated because I have had the ability to talk to far too many parents who have lost loved ones, who have lost their children, who have lost their kind of [sense of] normalcy,” Spanberger said.

The bill passed the House in June and currently awaits action in the Senate. 

  • Amie Knowles

    Amie is Dogwood's community editor. She has been in journalism for several years, winning multiple awards from the Virginia Press Association for news and features content. A lifelong Virginia resident, her work has appeared in the Martinsville Bulletin, Danville Register & Bee and NWNC Magazine.

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