OxyContin maker thrives in China with deserted US techniques

OxyContin maker thrives in China with abandoned US tactics

SHANGHAI (AP) — 1000’s of lawsuits throughout america have accused a drug firm owned by the billionaire Sackler household of utilizing false claims to push extremely addictive opioids on an unsuspecting nation, fueling the deadliest drug epidemic in U.S. historical past.

But, at the same time as its U.S. drugmaker collapses beneath the costs, one other firm owned by the household has used the identical techniques to hawk its signature painkiller, OxyContin, in China, based on interviews with present and former staff and paperwork obtained by the Related Press.

The paperwork and interviews point out that representatives from the Sacklers’ Chinese language affiliate, Mundipharma, inform medical doctors that time-release painkillers like OxyContin are much less addictive than different opioids—the identical pitch that Purdue Pharma, the U.S. firm owned by the household, admitted was false in courtroom greater than a decade in the past.


EDITOR’S NOTE: The Related Press, supported by a grant from the Pulitzer Heart on Disaster Reporting, is investigating the worldwide unfold of opioids and its penalties.


Mundipharma has pushed ever bigger doses of the drug, even because it turned clear that larger doses current larger dangers, and represented the drug as protected for continual ache, in accordance the interviews and paperwork.

These techniques mirror these employed by Purdue Pharma within the U.S., the place greater than 400,000 individuals have died of opioid overdoses and tens of millions extra turned addicted. An avalanche of litigation over the corporate’s advertising and marketing has pushed Purdue Pharma into chapter 11 within the U.S.

In China, Mundipharma managers have required gross sales representatives to repeat sufferers’ non-public medical data with out consent, in obvious violation of Chinese language legislation, present and former staff informed AP. Former reps additionally stated they generally disguised themselves as medical employees, placing on white physician’s coats and mendacity about their identification to go to sufferers within the hospital. As within the U.S., advertising and marketing materials in China made claims about OxyContin’s security and effectiveness primarily based on company-funded research and outdated knowledge that has been debunked.

The AP examined greater than 3,300 pages of coaching and advertising and marketing supplies utilized by Mundipharma employees, in addition to inner firm paperwork and movies. These recordsdata got here from three unbiased sources and had been verified by cross-checking. AP additionally spoke with one present and three former OxyContin gross sales representatives who labored on the firm final yr.

Mundipharma has promoted its blockbuster product, OxyContin, in questionable methods in different nations, together with Italy and Australia. However the firm has notably excessive hopes for China — the world’s most populous nation and second largest financial system— the place it has stated it desires gross sales to surpass these within the U.S. by 2025.

Although Mundipharma and Purdue are separate authorized entities, each are owned by the Sackler household. Right now, Mundipharma is a bargaining chip in negotiations to settle sweeping U.S. litigation. The Sackler household agreed to cede possession of Purdue, however desires to maintain Mundipharma for now to promote OxyContin overseas. They’ve mentioned ultimately promoting Mundipharma to fund the household’s contribution to a nationwide settlement within the U.S.

Mundipharma stated it was taking speedy motion to analyze the allegations uncovered by AP. In a press release, the corporate didn’t reply to particular allegations however stated it has rigorous insurance policies in place “to make sure that our medicines are marketed responsibly and in accordance with China’s strict regulatory framework governing analgesics.”

In response to detailed questions, Purdue stated Mundipharma is an unbiased entity, working in a unique nation, beneath totally different legal guidelines and laws. Representatives of the Sackler household didn’t reply to detailed requests for remark.

In america, Purdue stopped selling OxyContin to medical doctors in 2018 and removed its total opioid gross sales employees.

In the meantime, Mundipharma is hiring in China.


Mundipharma China was born in 1993 in a signing ceremony on the Nice Corridor of the Individuals on Tiananmen Sq.. Simply as within the U.S., the Sackler household’s enterprise pursuits in China coincided with their philanthropy.

The month after Mundipharma’s creation, the Arthur M. Sackler Museum of Artwork and Archeology opened its doorways at Peking College in Beijing. Exterior the museum is a statue devoted to Arthur Sackler and his spouse by the China Medical Tribune, a journal he helped discovered that now claims a readership of greater than one million Chinese language medical doctors.

These seeds of philanthropy and political alliances would bear fruit for the Sacklers simply as opioid prescriptions started to fall within the U.S.

China was a tantalizing marketplace for the Sacklers. The nation’s per capita consumption of opioids was low and it had tens of millions of latest most cancers circumstances yearly.

But when convincing U.S. medical doctors in America that opioids are protected was a tough promote, in China, it might be much more tough.

China fought two wars within the 19th century to beat again British ships dumping opium that fueled widespread habit. Right now, the cultural aversion to taking medication — in Chinese language, actually “sucking poison” — is so sturdy addicts may be compelled into police-run therapy facilities. The nation doesn’t seem to have an opioid disaster something like within the U.S.

Twenty years in the past, as tales of OxyContin abuse started to flow into in america, international pharmaceutical corporations helped unfold a brand new gospel of ache therapy throughout China, recasting ache because the fifth important signal—alongside blood strain, coronary heart charge, respiratory charge, and temperature—and ache therapy as a human proper.

Dr. Yu Buwei, director of anesthesiology at Shanghai’s prestigious Ruijin Hospital, was skeptical. Philosophical and soft-spoken, Yu was deeply grounded in conventional Chinese language drugs. Throughout China’s Cultural Revolution he used acupuncture as anesthesia on sufferers present process main surgical procedure.

“It’s essential to deal with ache,” Yu stated. “We agree with this. However elevating it to a human proper and the fifth important signal, we expect is controversial.”

A lot of his youthful colleagues, nonetheless, appeared in thrall of those international concepts. They believed the very best medical practices got here from america. Few understood how deeply the Western consensus about ache had been formed by the monetary self-interest of pharmaceutical corporations.

“In China, physician’s teams, particularly the younger medical doctors, present their respect to American medical doctors or the European medical doctors,” Yu stated. “What they are saying, that’s reality. What you say, that’s interfering.”


In 2007, Purdue and three executives pleaded responsible in U.S. courtroom to misrepresenting OxyContin as much less addictive than different opioid painkillers, and paid $635 million in penalties, one of many largest settlements in pharmaceutical firm historical past.

Sackler members of the family started to fret a few “harmful focus of threat” of their U.S. enterprise, and educated their sights on the worldwide market. Not lengthy after, Mundipharma helped launch a marketing campaign to enhance most cancers ache care in China referred to as Good Ache Administration, or GPM, based on interviews and firm paperwork.

Right now, this system is portrayed as a authorities public well being initiative. However Zhang Li, director of inner drugs at Solar Yat-sen College Most cancers Heart in Guangzhou, stated GPM “obtained the energetic help of Mundipharma throughout the launch course of.”

Based on Zhang, the GPM marketing campaign was began in 2009 beneath his management, by a gaggle inside the Guangdong Provincial Anti-Most cancers Affiliation, a non-profit that accepts company funding. Pharmaceutical corporations helped by protecting the price of coaching and academic supplies, he stated.

Two years later, the Chinese language authorities launched the marketing campaign nationwide. On February 22, 2011, Mundipharma gained a contract to implement this system with an preliminary goal of creating mannequin GPM wards in 150 key hospitals inside three years.

It was a watershed second for the corporate.

Mundipharma was chargeable for serving to prepare medical doctors and educate sufferers, in addition to distributing pamphlets and placards to lift consciousness about ache. “Mundipharma will ultimately turn into your greatest supporter and accomplice in creating an illustration ward,” proclaimed a PowerPoint assembled in 2009.

This system was a three-way alliance among the many then-Ministry of Well being, the Chinese language Society of Scientific Oncology and Mundipharma, based on Zhang and displays utilized by Mundipharma gross sales employees.

Mundipharma’s preliminary contract with the oncology society gave it a seat on the GPM management staff and barred the corporate from utilizing this system to market its merchandise, based on sections of the contract obtained by AP. In inner firm paperwork, nonetheless, Mundipharma handled this system as a part of its advertising and marketing technique and used it to tout the prevalence of its personal merchandise.

“We had been undoubtedly speaking about OxyContin ninety p.c of the time,” stated a former gross sales rep who spoke on situation of anonymity for concern of retribution.

The oncology society declined to reply questions. China’s Ministry of Well being, which was reorganized because the Nationwide Well being Fee, stated it hadn’t designated an organization to offer help for this system.

One GPM presentation that Mundipharma staff stated was nonetheless getting used final yr urged OxyContin is the popular choice for most cancers ache therapy beneath World Well being Group and different tips, earlier than detailing why competing painkillers equivalent to acetaminophen, fentanyl patches and speedy launch morphine aren’t advisable.

The WHO doesn’t suggest OxyContin as superior to different medication for most cancers ache care.

In a press release to AP, the corporate stated its position in GPM is just to help with implementation. “The Program is independently initiated and managed with the objective of bettering the medical neighborhood’s understanding of most cancers ache administration remedies,” the corporate stated.

Mundipharma informed AP that each one advertising and marketing supplies bear multi-level approval. However present and former staff acknowledged that they generally altered the officially-vetted displays. The messages contained in all three units of paperwork had been constant and contained data that Purdue Pharma has utilized in america.

Within the years after GPM rolled out, from 2012 by 2018, gross sales of Mundipharma’s oxycodone, the lively ingredient in OxyContin, at almost 700 of China’s main hospitals rose five-fold, based on beforehand unreported knowledge from the government-linked China Nationwide Pharmaceutical Business Data Heart.

Throughout that very same interval, gross sales of morphine, extensively thought of an reasonably priced “gold commonplace” for ache therapy, remained flat at those self same hospitals. By early 2017, OxyContin had captured roughly 60 p.c of the most cancers ache market in China, up from simply over 40 p.c in 2014, firm paperwork present.

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Tony Chen, a former OxyContin gross sales rep who spoke provided that he be recognized by his English identify, for concern of retribution, stated he beloved GPM as a result of the federal government backing obtained him high-level entry at hospitals and helped drive gross sales.

“We didn’t must bribe,” he stated. “That’s why I preferred it.”

The strain to carry out was intense. Chen and different reps stated quarterly gross sales targets rose by as a lot as 30 p.c. If he surpassed them, he may greater than double his take house pay. If he didn’t, he may lose his job.

He stated he was ready to “get fired up” about driving development. He wasn’t ready to interrupt the legislation.

One present and three former gross sales reps who labored in numerous elements of China informed the AP that managers required them to add sufferers’ medical data, obtained with out consent, to an organization chat group every day.

AP was proven snapshots of prescription data employees stated had been despatched to managers. Handwritten on pink slips of paper, they included the affected person’s full identify, age, cellphone quantity, ID quantity, analysis and prescription.

The extra exact the knowledge, the higher Mundipharma may plan gross sales targets, in addition to information medical doctors to extend dosages and change to OxyContin from rival medication, former gross sales reps defined.

Chen knew he had no authorized proper to repeat private data, and at first scribbled over sufferers’ names earlier than importing the paperwork. He and his colleagues stated they used to discreetly snap photographs of affected person data throughout the night time shift, or throughout lunch breaks.

Finally, Chen stated, he determined his effort to guard privateness was a waste of time as a result of different individuals in his group had been importing full affected person data. He informed himself it was OK as a result of the knowledge wouldn’t flow into outdoors Mundipharma.

When it was time for hospital rounds, Chen typically slipped on a white physician’s coat and mingled with medical employees. If anybody requested who he was, he lied and informed them he was a physician or an intern. He stated he typically requested sufferers instantly in the event that they felt sore, swollen or numb and the way they had been sleeping.

Two different former OxyContin gross sales reps stated additionally they disguised themselves in physician’s coats and sat in on affected person conferences.

The important thing to this entry was good relationships with medical doctors. Simply as Purdue was accused of doing within the U.S., Mundipharma cultivated medical doctors with paid talking gigs, dinners, occasion sponsorships and expense-paid journeys to conferences, typically routing funds by third events, gross sales reps stated. Audio system, who typically delivered displays created by or with Mundipharma gross sales employees, may earn 500 yuan ($70) to a number of thousand yuan per speech, present and former staff stated.

Two of Chen’s former colleagues stated additionally they used present playing cards to encourage medical doctors to prescribe extra. It was straightforward to faux receipts for firm expense reviews and get money to fund under-the-table funds, they claimed.

Mundipharma informed AP it promotes moral habits and compliance with Chinese language legislation by inner monitoring in addition to exterior audits. “We have now detailed insurance policies protecting interactions with healthcare professionals, grants and donations, and sponsorships and incentives,” the corporate stated, including {that a} compliance staff displays expense claims and conferences.

China has a number of the strictest regulation on this planet on the usage of opioids. Opioid painkillers like OxyContin are usually not accessible at pharmacies. They’re saved beneath double-lock at hospitals and ruled by so-called “purple prescriptions,” which solely specifically licensed medical doctors can write.

However as ache therapy expanded in China, with the institution of ache clinics starting in 2007 and the rollout of GPM, extra medical doctors turned licensed to prescribe opioids. Ache administration ceased to be the purview of anesthesiologists like Ruijin Hospital’s Dr. Yu. It turned a matter for surgeons, ache clinicians and most cancers medical doctors.

“Sufferers, or drug abusers, can get these sorts of medicine rather more simply in contrast with 10 years in the past,” Yu stated. “That’s an issue.”

Yu examine what was occurring within the U.S. and nervous for China. “There may be already a fairly huge group of drug customers on this society,” he stated.

Yu resisted the notion that opioid painkillers weren’t addictive and may very well be safely used, at any dose, for all types of ache. He checked the scientific references on medical displays and infrequently discovered them unconvincing. He barred gross sales reps from his division.

Yu stated he tried to steer colleagues that a number of the new notions about ache had been foolish, even dangerous. “I bear in mind I argued with them, muscle ache or joint ache will not be an excellent indication for opioid medication,” he stated. “However they stated, it’s a human proper. It’s a must to relieve the ache.”


When Chen began work at Mundipharma, he was taught that OxyContin was an excellent drug, and extensively utilized in America.

The corporate gave him lots of of pages of paperwork to review. Chen learn that the danger of getting hooked on opioid painkillers was nearly non-existent and that OxyContin’s slow-release formulation made it even safer. He didn’t trouble to examine the references Mundipharma cited as proof. Neither did most medical doctors at China’s notoriously overburdened hospitals. And the authorized sanctions Purdue confronted within the U.S. didn’t apply in China, the place some individuals had by no means heard of the corporate or its troubles.

“I thought of this an issue by way of humanistic take care of sufferers,” Chen stated. “This can be a actually good product.”

Within the 2007 lawsuit filed by U.S. prosecutors, Purdue conceded that a few of its staff had falsely claimed that long-acting opioids are much less addictive as a result of they’ve fewer “peak and trough” results and trigger much less euphoria. Purdue entered right into a legally binding settlement with the U.S. authorities to make sure that their employees by no means made such claims once more.

“Purdue accepted duty for the misconduct in 2007 and has since then strived by no means to repeat it,” the corporate stated once more in a authorized submitting in September.

But, three present and former staff of Purdue’s worldwide affiliate in China made the identical declare to AP that OxyContin reduces the danger of habit as a result of it’s launched slowly into the bloodstream, inflicting fewer “peaks and troughs” than immediate-release medication. This argument has no scientific foundation, based on a 2016 U.S. Facilities for Illness Management report.

Sustained-release expertise “additional reduces the incidence of habit,” reads a Mundipharma PowerPoint slide employees stated was nonetheless in use final yr. It referenced a examine within the scientific journal Most cancers from 1989 funded by Purdue and co-authored by a Purdue worker, and a short 2004 Chinese language examine.

Neither paper truly examined habit threat.

Some influential medical doctors in China additionally proceed to make Mundipharma’s argument.

“The extended launch formulation doesn’t simply give rise to drug dependence,” Dr. Fan Bifa, the director of the ache clinic on the China-Japan Friendship Hospital in Beijing, informed the AP in Might.

Dr. Fan has spoken at Mundipharma-funded conferences and appeared in a ache consciousness video alongside Mundipharma China’s basic supervisor, different distinguished medical doctors and celebrities. The China-Japan Friendship Hospital was among the many first to acquire certification beneath the Good Ache Administration program in Beijing.

Fan informed AP he has by no means taken cash instantly from Mundipharma.

When AP informed Fan about Purdue’s 2007 responsible plea, he appeared shocked. He stated he had by no means regarded for scientific proof to show that sustained launch opioids are much less prone to trigger habit.

Different Mundipharma supplies echoed a short 1980 letter within the New England Journal of Drugs that has been repeatedly and incorrectly cited to recommend that opioids aren’t as addictive as everybody had lengthy thought. Even after the journal “for causes of public well being” took the bizarre step of publishing a cautionary editor’s notice above the letter, it continued for use in China.

“Within the final 40 years, medical research at house and overseas have proven that the hazard of opioid dependence occurring is lower than 3/10,000,” proclaimed a Sept. 2017 press launch for a Mundipharma-backed most cancers ache consciousness marketing campaign.

Three present and former OxyContin gross sales reps repeated comparable statistics to AP.

In a press release to AP, Mundipharma stated that it “mandates warnings of habit threat” in materials utilized by gross sales representatives, however didn’t present additional element. The bundle insert for OxyContin in China warns that it has the potential for abuse but additionally says “considerations about abuse, habit, and diversion mustn’t stop correct use for ache therapy.”

The U.S. Facilities for Illness Management says that as many as 1 in four individuals prescribed opioids for long-term use struggles with habit.

The Mundipharma gross sales reps informed AP that they had a pitch for medical doctors nervous about habit: If used correctly, the dangers of habit to opioid painkillers are nearly non-existent. Sufferers who appear addicted could want extra medication to regulate ache, employees PowerPoints defined.

“Based mostly on my expertise, that’s like a joke,” Dr. Yu stated.

He stated sufferers may slip into habit inside a number of days. “They got here to you and began speaking repeatedly about ache and requested you to prescribe drugs,” Yu stated. “We name this drug-seeking habits.’”

Mundipharma referred to as it “pseudoaddiction.”

It’s a notion first popularized by Dr. J. David Haddox, who coined the time period “pseudoaddiction” in a 1989 paper. Haddox went on to spend almost 20 years as an government at Purdue Pharma.

OxyContin’s FDA-approved label warns that even when taken as prescribed, OxyContin carries probably deadly dangers of habit and abuse. Purdue now faces a number of U.S. lawsuits for spreading concepts about pseudoaddiction, in addition to claiming the danger of opioid habit is low and that doses may be elevated with out threat.

The concept that sufferers can safely take as a lot OxyContin as they need was nice for Chen’s backside line. Mundipharma typically provided particular bonuses for promoting 40 mg OxyContin, the biggest, most costly dose bought in China, inner paperwork and interviews present.

However Chen stated cramming individuals stuffed with capsules “would lay heavy on my conscience.”

Chen flipped by a PowerPoint presentation on high-dose opioids he stated he obtained from his boss at Mundipharma and pointed to an instance of a affected person taking 1500 mg twice a day.

“It’s terrifying,” he stated.

A yr after the CDC stated that taking greater than 33mg of OxyContin a day at the very least doubles the danger of overdose, Mundipharma got here out with a advertising and marketing plan pushing its 40mg capsule.

Mundipharma stated its coaching covers “applicable dosage ranges for most cancers sufferers” and gives data “in accordance with present greatest observe.”

As Chen regarded again over his coaching paperwork, he discovered displays touting opioid painkillers as a protected and efficient therapy for continual ache, citing outdated research with authors linked to Mundipharma and different corporations.

The co-author on a 2006 examine of visceral ache went on to function a paid advisor for Mundipharma. One of many authors on one other examine, from 2003, cited as proof that OxyContin is “perfect” for neuropathic ache, was a Mundipharma Canada worker. Mundipharma sourced OxyContin’s effectiveness for osteoarthritis ache to the American Academy of Ache Drugs, an expert society that attorneys basic allege, in a number of lawsuits, is a paid entrance group for company pursuits.

Within the U.S., Purdue additionally got down to change the tradition of ache by first specializing in most cancers. However from the start, Purdue was after the far bigger non-cancer ache market, based on finances paperwork launched by the Florida Legal professional Normal’s workplace and revealed by Kaiser Well being Information.

The CDC says there are dangers of “severe harms” from taking opioids long-term for continual ache, however proof for the potential advantages is missing.

In a press release to AP, Mundipharma stated that OxyContin “is utilized in observe just for the therapy of most cancers ache in China.”

However beneath Chinese language laws, OxyContin can be utilized to deal with average to extreme ache, whether or not it’s attributable to most cancers or not. Authorities tips revealed in 2002 specify that sturdy opioids like OxyContin can be utilized after different strategies have failed for non-cancer sufferers who’re over 40 years of age and undergo from a handful of painful circumstances.

However the tips are usually not rigorously adopted. AP spoke with three medical doctors who stated they prescribed OxyContin for a variety of continual ache circumstances, although all stated the numbers of non-cancer ache sufferers on OxyContin in China are small.

China’s Nationwide Well being Fee, the Nationwide Medical Merchandise Administration, the State Administration for Market Regulation and the Nationwide Improvement and Reform Fee all declined to touch upon detailed questions from the AP.


If the U.S. has entered an endgame in its battle with prescription painkillers, China is someplace close to the start. Whereas some individuals imagine China’s painful historical past with opium and strict laws will defend it towards a U.S.-style outbreak, others concern for the longer term.

“Why am I afraid of a drug epidemic?” Dr. Yu stated. “If our medical doctors can’t stand temptation and wish to make tens or lots of of hundreds of yuan a month, it’s straightforward to be manipulated by different individuals.”

Sitting in a big, Spartan workplace at Ruijin’s campus in suburban Shanghai, Yu had an air of resignation. His beliefs about learn how to shepherd individuals by struggling had fallen out of vogue in China. However Yu appeared at peace along with his misplaced status.

In the long run, he stated, “it depends on the physician’s conscience.”


Related Press researcher Chen Si in Shanghai contributed to this report.

Observe Kinetz on Twitter at: https://twitter.com/ekinetz

On-line: A number of Mundipharma China paperwork, U.S. courtroom filings and regulatory tips


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