Prescription Drugs:

OxyContin Abuse and Diversion and Efforts to Address the Problem

GAO-04-110: Published: Dec 19, 2003. Publicly Released: Jan 22, 2004.

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Marcia G. Crosse
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Amid heightened awareness that many patients with cancer and other chronic diseases suffer from undertreated pain, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) approved Purdue Pharma's controlled-release pain reliever OxyContin in 1995. Sales grew rapidly, and by 2001 OxyContin had become the most prescribed brandname narcotic medication for treating moderate-to-severe pain. In early 2000, reports began to surface about abuse and diversion for illicit use of OxyContin, which contains the opioid oxycodone. GAO was asked to examine concerns about these issues. Specifically, GAO reviewed (1) how OxyContin was marketed and promoted, (2) what factors contributed to the abuse and diversion of OxyContin, and (3) what actions have been taken to address OxyContin abuse and diversion.

Purdue conducted an extensive campaign to market and promote OxyContin using an expanded sales force to encourage physicians, including primary care specialists, to prescribe OxyContin not only for cancer pain but also as an initial opioid treatment for moderate-to-severe noncancer pain. OxyContin prescriptions, particularly those for noncancer pain, grew rapidly, and by 2003 nearly half of all OxyContin prescribers were primary care physicians. The Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) has expressed concern that Purdue's aggressive marketing of OxyContin focused on promoting the drug to treat a wide range of conditions to physicians who may not have been adequately trained in pain management. FDA has taken two actions against Purdue for OxyContin advertising violations. Further, Purdue did not submit an OxyContin promotional video for FDA review upon its initial use in 1998, as required by FDA regulations. Several factors may have contributed to the abuse and diversion of OxyContin. The active ingredient in OxyContin is twice as potent as morphine, which may have made it an attractive target for misuse. Further, the original label's safety warning advising patients not to crush the tablets because of the possible rapid release of a potentially toxic amount of oxycodone may have inadvertently alerted abusers to methods for abuse. Moreover, the significant increase in OxyContin's availability in the marketplace may have increased opportunities to obtain the drug illicitly in some states. Finally, the history of abuse and diversion of prescription drugs, including opioids, in some states may have predisposed certain areas to problems with OxyContin. However, GAO could not assess the relationship between the increased availability of OxyContin and locations of abuse and diversion because the data on abuse and diversion are not reliable, comprehensive, or timely. Federal and state agencies and Purdue have taken actions to address the abuse and diversion of OxyContin. FDA approved a stronger safety warning on OxyContin's label. In addition, FDA and Purdue collaborated on a risk management plan to help detect and prevent OxyContin abuse and diversion, an approach that was not used at the time OxyContin was approved. FDA plans to provide guidance to the pharmaceutical industry by September 2004 on risk management plans, which are an optional feature of new drug applications. DEA has established a national action plan to prevent abuse and diversion of OxyContin. State agencies have investigated reports of abuse and diversion. In addition to developing a risk management plan, Purdue has initiated several OxyContin-related educational programs, taken disciplinary action against sales representatives who improperly promoted OxyContin, and referred physicians suspected of improper prescribing practices to the authorities.

Recommendation for Executive Action

  1. Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: Consistent with GAO's recommendation, FDA issued guidance in March 2005 that recommends sponsors of schedule II controlled substances develop and use risk minimization action plans. Though FDA had approved one schedule II controlled substance since our recommendation and that application included a detailed risk minimization action plan, the manufacturer of this controlled substance subsequently provided FDA information showing abuse of the controlled substance and suspended sales and marketing of it.

    Recommendation: To improve efforts to prevent or identify the abuse and diversion of schedule II controlled substances, the Commissioner of Food and Drugs should ensure that FDA's risk management plan guidance encourages pharmaceutical manufacturers that submit new drug applications for these substances to include plans that contain a strategy for monitoring the use of these drugs and identifying potential abuse and diversion problems.

    Agency Affected: Department of Health and Human Services: Public Health Service: Food and Drug Administration


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