Oxycodone, the active ingredient in OxyContin®, is a semi-synthetic opiate derived from thebaine, an element of morphine. Oxycodone has been in medical use for moderate to severe pain for many years, under a variety of brand names. Two drawbacks of the previously available brands are that they are available only in low dosages, so some patients must take many pills a day to get relief; and that they are found in combination with other drugs, like acetaminophen or aspirin, which can cause dangerous side effects when taken in large quantities.
OxyContin® went on the market in 1996. For patients with serious, ongoing pain, the drug is highly preferable to previous brands because it avoids their two drawbacks. OxyContin® contains no other active ingredients which can cause side effects; and it comes in larger dosages with a special timed-release coating, so patients may take only two pills a day.
Legal sales of OxyContin® in 1996 reportedly totaled about $40 million. By 2000, sales were greater than $1 billion, making it the number one narcotic pain relief pill. Most of the pills sold are believed to have been used by legitimate patients.
Other oxycodone products have been abused in the past, but the widespread abuse of the powerful OxyContin® has caused tremendous alarm and concern. The Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA) has been working with Purdue Pharma, OxyContin’s® manufacturer, to develop more controls on the drug. Purdue Pharma is working on providing more education and information for doctors on how to prescribe the drug and how to detect fraud in its use. The company is also looking at limiting its distribution and marketing of the drug, following a huge public outcry about their marketing practices.
In May 2001 OxyContin®’s manufacturer voluntarily stopped selling their 160 milligram pill. The dosage in these pills, if taken all at once, could kill a first-time user. Critics of the company feared that this move would not have much of an effect, as the 160 mg pills only made up about 1% of the total amount of OxyContin® available.
Purdue Pharma announced in early August 2001 that they are working on a new formulation of the drug that would make it harder to abuse. Such a formulation could take three years or more to come to market, however.