A new commercial again sounds the alarm of prescription drug abuse, and the company behind it is the maker of OxyContin, a painkiller that had more than $1.3 billion in sales last year but has also has been widely abused.
The spot is being sponsored by Purdue Pharma, which sold more than $1.3 billion of the drug last year.
Although the spot running in 18 markets works like a public service announcement, showing a teenager raiding his parents' medicine cabinet, it is also part of an effort by Purdue Pharma to present itself as part of the solution to nationwide abuse of its product. Yet, OxyContin is never mentioned.
OxyContin became widely abused after people discovered ways to use it for a heroinlike high. But the high came at the cost of addiction, and in hundreds of cases it contributed to death.
Since receiving government approval for sale in 1995, OxyContin has become the top-seller for Purdue Pharma and has helped chronic pain sufferers who were failed by earlier treatments. But the abuse has cast a pall over the drug and its maker. Among the ill effects for Purdue Pharma is a proposal to reduce the list of the kinds of pain for which OxyContin can be prescribed. Some pharmacies have even stopped stocking it for fear of robbery by addicts.
Critics say the spots are more likely a public relations effort than a bid to improve public health. Still, some consultants say they are the best way to keep a beneficial product available.
"Purdue Pharma is doing the right thing," said Peter Segall, a general manager overseeing the health practice at the Washington office of Edelman. "If this were an attempt to sell more product, it could be justifiably criticized. I don't think it is."
And John Brady, president at Equality Consulting in Hollywood, Calif., who has worked with clients including Alcon Laboratories and Pfizer, said, "they need to be able to communicate to the public, to demonstrate that they are acting responsibly."
"If they do not speak publicly about these issues," Mr. Brady said, "and if the industry doesn't at large, we will see in general reduced investment in the pharmaceutical industry and a decline in the creation and production of effective drugs."
Purdue Pharma executives say the company reacted swiftly to reports of its drug's abuse.
"We never anticipated that OxyContin would become popular with drug abusers," said Robin Hogen, vice president for public affairs at Purdue Pharma in Stamford, Conn. But once the problems were clear, he said, Purdue Pharma began an aggressive response that has so far cost $130 million on ads and other measures. Mr. Hogen said OxyContin was not mentioned in the ad campaign because the message was about the abuse of any and all prescription drugs.
The new spot is part of a much broader effort intended to fight prescription drug abuse through a program that includes cooperating with law enforcement agencies, financing anti-abuse programs that go into schools and the distribution of tamper-resistant prescription pads to more than 14,000 doctors.
There was also an educational campaign aimed at teenagers, carrying the theme "Painfully Obvious," that included giving away squishy toy brains dramatizing the risks of prescription drug abuse and a Web site, www.painfullyobvious.com. That campaign was created by North Castle Partners Advertising in Stamford, Conn.
The current ad campaign is aimed largely at parents, police and medical professionals began in February 2002. It includes print, television and radio components.
It appears not only where it might influence legislators, but in markets where there has been significant abuse, from Florida to Pennsylvania to Alaska. The current spot will probably run through November, with decisions on further installments to come early next year.
Earlier commercial showed pharmacists or police officers delivering messages like, "Prescription drug abuse is a problem we all need to fight."
The company would not describe its spending on the current ad campaign, other than to say it had spent several million dollars so far.
"This isn't a McDonald's advertising campaign," said Peter Fenn, president at the Fenn Communication Group in Washington, which created the campaign. "But it's serious and it's over the long term."
Critics argue that Purdue Pharma helped create the problem and has a duty to help mitigate it.
"They are trying to appear to be good citizens in a p.r. campaign that is designed to neutralize the very dangers they designed," said Sidney Wolfe, a doctor and the director for the Public Citizen's Health Research Group.
At the local level, where public officials saw the effects of OxyContin abuse before virtually anyone else, some said Purdue Pharma's efforts were welcome, if not as prompt as some had hoped.
"They kind of came on board late, I felt, after the firestorm began," said Jack L. Coleman Jr., a Democratic state representative in Kentucky. "We're way into this. I can't be critical of it necessarily, but as somebody who's been fighting this for years and years, it seems a little outside the range of serious help."
If popular culture this summer is any guide, such campaigns will have to continue as each new generation masters the remote control for the television.
A recent episode of "The O.C.," a new drama on the Fox network, even gave the drug a plug. "Maybe he's on OxyContin," one character says at a party, speaking of the handsomely delinquent protagonist who has just moved to town. "OxyContin is gnarly."
Posted on aef.com: September 10, 2003
Nat Ives, The New York Times. September 4, 2003
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