The Food and Drug Administration announced Tuesday its decision to ban generic versions of the original OxyContin formula, a narcotic medication often widely used to treat and alleviate chronic pain.
According to CNN, the agency has decided upon this change “in an effort to curb prescription painkiller abuse.” Since it was first approved in 1995, OxyContin has been extremely attractive to drug abusers, who either swallow the pills normally, crush them to snort, or crush and melt them to inject.
Yet, on closer examination, it appears the ban will do more to inflate OxyContin prices and lead to more profits than to stop abuse. The ban will also make it more difficult for people who need OxyContin for legitimate medical reasons.
It is true that prescription painkillers kill more Americans than heroin and cocaine combined, with approximately 12 million Americans over the age of 12 reportedly using prescription painkillers recreationally in 2010, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
But it is unclear how much reducing the availability of cheaper generic forms of OxyContin will do to curb the abuse of the drug. And it appears that in its effort to curtail abuse, the FDA is actually also harming those who need the drug for medical illnesses but cannot afford the brand-name version.
The average cost for a pill of brand-name OxyContin is now $7.50 — $450 per bottle of 100, according to NPR. So the ban is obviously good news for Purdue Pharma, the producer of OxyContin, as the drug accounts for one-third of its company’s revenues for prescription painkillers. That amounts to $2.8 billion in sales, according to online health resource IMS Health, and the company could be looking at even higher profits once the competition from generic producers of OxyContin dies down.
And while profits will skyrocket, so will the troubles of everyday people who cannot afford the increase in cost. Even worse, the high cost could drive doctors to switch prescriptions to methadone and other, less convenient options when a patient’s insurance won’t cover OxyContin, according to NPR.
Essentially, this means that in its attempt to curb abuse of the drug — an issue with the nature of the medication itself — the FDA has put patients’ health and treatment on the line. With OxyContin only available at higher prices, more patients will have to settle for less effective and less convenient treatment options to provide pain relief.
Meanwhile, it’s also unclear how effective other measures to stop OxyContin abuse have been.
In August 2010, Purdue stopped selling the original formula to pharmacies and reformulated the pills to become more crush-resistant, and thus more difficult to abuse for a quick, heroin-like high, according to CNN.
Yet in an NPR article, Andrew Kolodny, head of psychiatry at Maimonides Medical Center in New York, noted that “a pill that’s harder to snort or inject isn’t necessarily less addictive.”
And similarly, it could just be that a pill that’s more expensive won’t deter addicts from continuing to buy it.
The real problem lies with the very nature of how addictive the drug is — an issue that has no real solution besides completely banning the drug itself.
The new policy merely will benefit Purdue, despite the company’s past missteps: Purdue pled guilty in 1997 to federal charges that it had misled consumers by branding the drug as safer and less addictive than short-acting narcotic drugs, according to NPR. This is clearly not a company that’s hellbent on putting patients first.
It appears rather than improving others’ quality of life or helping save souls, this new ban boils down to money.
Valerie Yu is a freshman majoring in biological sciences and English. Her column “Heart of the Matter” runs Fridays.