Purdue Pharma has pleaded guilty to "misbranding" OxyContin by telling doctors that the timed-release version of oxycodone had a lower potential for abuse and addiction than other narcotic painkillers. It will pay some $600 million to resolve the criminal and civil charges stemming from its OxyContin marketing campaign. Since the company has admitted that its representatives falsely reassured doctors with fake scientific charts, among other fraudulent techniques, it is by no means blameless. But it's worth pointing out that Purdue Pharma is essentially being held responsible for the behavior of patients and black-market OxyContin buyers who deliberately crushed the pill to get all the oxycodone at once and then snorted or injected it. While the company might have anticipated this problem, it was not completely out of line in suggesting that the pills when taken as directed posed a lower addiction risk. "Accidental" addiction among legitimate patients taking narcotics for pain appears to be rare, but its incidence is greatly exaggerated by the government's anti-drug propaganda, and Purdue Pharma was largely responding to this perceived danger.
While OxyContin was oversold as an answer to the government's concern about nonmedical use, timed release was an important painkiller innovation, delivering steady relief over an extended period instead of the ups and downs associated with shorter-acting opioids. Purdue Pharma also makes MS Contin, a timed-release morphine tablet that predates OxyContin but has not attracted anything like the more notorious drug's sensational press coverage or black market following (which tend to feed each other).