OxyContin Maker Purdue Pharma Seeks New Ad Agency Partner

RFP concerns 'new product' launching this quarter

Beyond its opioid products, the company also sells laxatives, antiseptics and dietary supplements. Getty Images
Headshot of Patrick Coffee

Purdue Pharma LLC, the company best known for producing and marketing such extended-release opioid painkillers as OxyContin, is looking for a new ad agency amid a wave of negative press and more than 1,600 state and federal lawsuits, the first of which was recently settled for more than $270 million.

According to an email correspondence acquired by Adweek, the Stamford, Conn.-based company seeks a creative shop to help promote an as-yet-unreleased product.

An email sent to potential agency partners from the company’s procurement department several weeks ago concerned the pending release of an RFP “for a direct-to-consumer agency partner for a new product we will be launching in the first quarter of 2019.” The company’s head of corporate procurement went on to state an interest in speaking with representatives from these agencies “regarding this exciting project and [their] potential interest in participating.”

It is not clear which agencies received or accepted the invitation. Adweek reached out to several shops that either specialize in healthcare or maintain significant dedicated healthcare divisions. All either declined to comment or did not respond.

The specific nature of the “new product” is also not clear. Medications for which Purdue has recently sought or won FDA approval include Lemborexant, an insomnia drug developed in collaboration with Japan’s Eisai; ADHD treatment Adhansia XR, released by subsidiary Adlon Therapeutics L.P.; and Nalmefene HCl, an opioid antagonist specifically designed to treat drug overdoses.

A Purdue representative has so far declined to comment beyond noting that “any RFPs for a consumer advertising agency are not related to our opioid business.” Purdue’s products also include laxatives, antiseptics and dietary supplements.

In a March statement about the FDA’s decision to “fast track” the approval process for Nalmefene HCl, Purdue president and CEO Craig Landau said, “Fentanyl and illicit opioid deaths continue to increase in the United States, fueled increasingly by overdoses of this class of compounds. We urgently need new and potentially more effective treatments to combat opioid overdose than are available today.”

Yet, the Purdue name has become inextricable from discussions of the opioid epidemic that killed 63,000 Americans in 2016, as well as the marketing efforts behind opiate-derived prescription drugs. In 2003, approximately eight years after approving OxyContin for sale, the FDA warned Purdue that ads for the drug “grossly overstate[d]” its safety. Four years later, three top Purdue executives pled guilty to charges that they knowingly misled doctors and patients about the drug’s potential for abuse.

As the controversy continued to build in 2017, Purdue ran a full-page ad highlighting its anti-addiction efforts in The New York Times under the headline, “We manufacture prescription opioids. How could we not help fight the prescription and illicit opioid abuse crisis?”

Bloomberg recently estimated that the Sackler family, which owns 100 percent of Purdue, has a net worth of $13 billion, a total that excludes their holdings in the drug company. The family’s Sackler Trust is also well-known for its sponsorship of the arts, though it recently announced plans to “temporarily pause all new philanthropic giving.”

In January, Massachusetts Attorney General Maura Healey sued Purdue, claiming the Sackler family continued pushing its marketing efforts in order to boost OxyContin sales despite knowing of the drug’s well-established ties to abuse. This case marked the first attempt to hold members of the family “personally responsible for contributing” to the epidemic, according to Reuters.

Last month The Wall Street Journal reported that Purdue was considering a bankruptcy filing in order to better contain the liability from the lawsuits. Shortly thereafter, the company agreed to settle a suit first filed by Oklahoma Attorney General Mike Hunter in 2017, paying $270 million to cover legal fees and fund addiction treatment and research. Hunter initially sought $20 billion.

After the settlement, Purdue’s U.K.-based legal team sent a letter to The Huffington Post stating that no members of the Sackler family were defendants in that case, that OxyContin accounts for only 4 percent of opioid prescriptions in the U.S. and that the settlement does not amount to “an acceptance of responsibility by the family for the opioid crisis.”

According to Kantar Media, Purdue Pharma spent approximately $35 million on paid media in the U.S. last year. That’s more than three times its total for 2017.

@PatrickCoffee patrick.coffee@adweek.com Patrick Coffee is a senior editor for Adweek.