Opioid maker Purdue deep-sixes sales team amid mass layoff and mounting legal woes

Hydrocodone opioid pills
A New York judge declined to dismiss a case against Purdue and other opioid makers alleging they violated consumer-protection laws. (Getty/smartstock)

Even though opioid addiction emerged years ago as an epidemic, it wasn’t until February of this year that OxyContin maker Purdue Pharma finally stopped promoting the drug to physicians and laid off 200 salespeople. Now the company—which is facing a mountain of legal woes related to the opioid crisis—is distancing itself even further from the powerful painkillers that made it infamous.

Connecticut-based Purdue laid off roughly 350 employees this week, about half of whom were the salespeople who’d kept their jobs after the February downsizing. A Purdue spokesman said in a statement provided to FiercePharma that the company is diversifying beyond developing pain medications while taking “meaningful steps to reduce opioid abuse and addiction, including research and development of non-opioid analgesic pain treatments.” The company has about 550 employees left, he added.

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Purdue is one of five drug companies facing lawsuits from cities and counties across the U.S. alleging they misrepresented the risks of opioids. Three distributors are also named in the suits, some of which have been consolidated in the Northern District of Ohio. U.S. Judge Dan Polster has been overseeing settlement talks, but in a court filing in March he suggested that the quickest way to resolve the matter would be to “put into place a limited litigation track,” which might include bellwether trials.

The Centers for Disease Control estimates that 115 Americans die each day of opioid overdoses. In 2016, there were more than 63,000 overdose deaths, 66% of which involved an opioid, the CDC reported. More than 40% of those deaths were blamed on prescription opioids.

In addition to the Ohio suits, opioid makers are negotiating separately with some states and counties, including New York, where a judge handed Purdue and other opioid makers a major thumbs-down on Monday. The companies had requested in New York state court that lawsuits in 8 counties be thrown out. The suits allege the companies violated consumer-protection laws by marketing opioids. The court declined the dismissal request.

“It is at least arguable that the manufacturing defendants were in a position to anticipate or prevent the claimed injuries,’’ wrote the New York state court judge, Jerry Garguilo, in the ruling, which was acquired by Bloomberg. Therefore it is fair to potentially hold the companies accountable, he added.

RELATED: Beat you to it, Purdue. Other opioid makers already ditched promotions

As for Purdue, it’s trying mightily to clean up its opioid-stained reputation. The spokesman pointed out that the company ended its promotional speaker programs for two of its opioid products in 2016 and pulled the plug on a third speaker program last year. Now that there are no salespeople out pitching the drugs, “Purdue has ended its sales force engagement with prescribers for all of its medicines,” he said.

The company is trying to turn the public’s attention to its non-opioid portfolio. Last summer, Purdue and its partner, Japan’s Shionogi, launched Symproic, a once-daily pill to treat opioid-induced constipation. Its pipeline includes sleep drug lemborexant, which is partnered with Japan-based Eisai. Earlier this month, the two companies presented positive data on that drug at the annual meeting of the Associated Professional Sleep Societies.

The Purdue spokesman said that going forward, “primarily through emphasis on internal and partnered research and development programs, the company will be pursuing new medications and unmet need for patients suffering from cancer and select central nervous system disorders.”