File photo: REUTERS
File photo: REUTERS

OxyContin-maker Purdue Pharma cut the remainder of its sales force this week, the latest move by the company to distance itself from opioids as it faces accusations that it contributed to the nation’s addiction crisis.

The drug maker said it would retain about 550 employees after chopping about 350 positions, including about 250 employees focused on promoting the treatment for opioid-induced constipation, Symproic. That product was launched in 2017 in partnership with Japan-based Shionogi. The other employees worked at the company’s headquarters.

In February, Purdue said it would stop promoting its opioid drugs to doctors, cutting its sales force by more than half. It was a retreat after years of criticism that the company’s aggressive sales efforts helped lay the foundation of the US addiction crisis.

Purdue said in a statement that it would continue to research cancer and diversify into new areas, including the central nervous system.

"While the development of important new medicines will be the company’s priority going forward, we will continue to support our opioid analgesic product portfolio while continuing our commitment to take meaningful steps to reduce opioid abuse and addiction," the company said.

Aggressive promotion

OxyContin, approved in 1995, is the closely held company’s biggest-selling drug, though sales of the pain pill have declined in recent years amid competition from generics. It generated $1.8bn in 2017, down from $2.8bn five years earlier, according to data compiled by Symphony Health Solutions. It also sells the painkiller Hysingla and Butrans, a transdermal patch.

Purdue is credited with helping develop many modern tactics of aggressive pharmaceutical promotion. Purdue and other opioid makers and distributors are accused in hundreds of lawsuits of creating a public-health crisis through their marketing of the painkillers.

Purdue has said that it should not be blamed for the opioid crisis. It has recently positioned itself as an advocate for fighting the opioid addiction crisis, as overdoses from prescription drugs claim thousands of lives in the US each year.

It placed full-page adverts in major newspapers in December, promoting its abuse-deterrent drugs and support for federal guidelines for safe prescribing of opioids. It has also partnered with the National Sheriffs’ Association to help fund distribution of the overdose-reversing drug, naloxone.