The Profit of Pain: How Pharmaceutical Companies Incited an Epidemic

In the United States, drug overdose deaths have surpassed motor-vehicle accidents as the primary source of unintentional injuries, which is one of the top ten leading causes of death (Kochanek, Murphy, Xu, & Arias, 2017). In 2015 there were 33,091 opioid-related overdose deaths (“Opioid Overdose,” 2017). Lawmakers and public health officials are turning to the pharmaceutical industry for recompense as death tolls continue to rise.

When prescription pain killers hit the market, intrinsically dangerous medications met maximizing profit, resulting in the massive manipulation of healthcare professionals and the public (Keefe, 2017). Purdue Pharma never publicly admitted to the addictive qualities of OxyContin, but it has been discovered that they possessed unpublished studies and communications from doctors concerned about withdrawal data that clearly indicate the dangerous abuse potential of the drug (Keefe, 2017). Ultimately, profit triumphed over poignant public health concerns, and these experimental results and their harmful health implications were quickly concealed. Steven May, who in 1999 became a Purdue Pharma sales representative, reflects on the company’s role in popularizing opioid prescriptions for pain management:  “What Purdue did really well was target physicians, like general practitioners, who were not pain specialists” (Keefe, 2017).


Abbott Pain Management partnered with Purdue Pharma and championed their own winning market strategies to boost the sales from opioid prescriptions. STAT news has uncovered shockingly blatant tactics utilized by Abbott such as the delivery of sweets and luncheons to doctor’s offices in forms such as the picture below (Armstrong, 2016). Sales representatives arranged meetings with physicians at bookstores so they could conveniently buy them a few books as gifts at the same time (Armstrong, 2016). Purdue formed a speaker’s bureau that sponsored thousands of physicians to attend conferences at vacation destinations with the condition that they praise Purdue Pharma’s products (Keefe, 2017).

Image by Anthony Tieuli for STAT depicts a recreation of a successful Abbott marketing gift to an orthopedic surgeon.

These shocking exposés have recently sparked demands for retribution. In 2015, the State of Kentucky sued Purdue Pharma for deceptive marketing. However, the case was settled with the drug company’s offer of $24 million which allowed them to skillfully avoid conviction while preventing the release of any incriminating documents. Pike County, ravaged by debt, could not refuse the settlement offer, and the company got away avoiding any admittance to blame (Keefe, 2017).

Although Pike County was unable to successfully bring Purdue Pharma to court, major pharmaceutical companies continue to be challenged legally. Last Wednesday, Illinois’ Cook County, home to Chicago, sued the pharmaceutical giants for responsibility in the amplification of the prescription drug epidemic (Fang, 2017). While Purdue Pharma has paid fines to avoid legal scrutiny, Abbott labs has never paid any form of recompense due to an indemnification clause between the two companies. Indemnification allowed Abbott labs to push all guilt onto Purdue pharma if they split their profits from sales of OxyContin. It is estimated Abbott labs has gained at least $10 million in OxyContin sales while avoiding scrutiny and a blight to their brand name (Armstrong, 2016).

Since 1999, opioid-related overdose deaths have quadrupled (“Opioid Overdose,” 2017). The proportion of deaths related to prescription opioid overdoses have more than quadrupled in this time, although the level of pain Americans report experiencing has not changed (“Opioid Overdose,” 2017). The serious side effects of these prescription medications include increased sensitivity to pain, nausea, depression, confusion, fatigue, and more–not to mention addiction, abuse, and death (“Opioid Overdose,” 2017). The flagrant abandonment of public interest for sake of profit by the pharmaceutical industry is bringing on a fresh wave of legal allegations to follow into next year.


Armstrong, D. (2016, September 22). Secret trove reveals Abbott’s bold ‘crusade’ to sell OxyContin. Retrieved December 27, 2017, from

Fang, M. (2017, December 27). Chicago Area Officials Demand Accountability For Drugmakers ‘Complicit’ In Opioid Crisis. Retrieved December 27, 2017, from

Keefe, P. R. (2017, December 12). The Family That Built an Empire of Pain. Retrieved December 27, 2017, from

Kochanek, K. D., M.A., Murphy, S. L., B.S., Xu, J., M.D., & Arias, E., Ph.D. (2017, December 21). National Center for Health Statistics. Retrieved December 27, 2017, from

Opioid Overdose. (2017, December 19). Retrieved December 27, 2017, from

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