NCPA - National Center for Policy Analysis

Oxycontin: Miracle Medicine or Problem Drug?

October 13, 2003

Drugs of choice in the United States are continually shifting and changing. The most recent entry to the illegal drug scene is OxyContin -- a legal prescription painkiller several times more potent than morphine.

Upon its initial entry onto the market it was hailed as the new wonder drug. The medication is unique in that its time-release formula allows patients to enjoy continuous, long-term relief from severe pain. However, during the past three years the legal drug has received negative attention for its addictiveness and its growing diversion to the illegal marketplace.

  • More than 7.2 million prescriptions of OxyContin were dispensed in 2001 and retail sales totaled more than $1.45 billion, representing a 41 percent increase in sales between 2000 and 2001 alone.
  • In 2002, retail sales increased to $1.59 billion, ranking OxyContin as the highest of all brand-name controlled substances in retail sales.
  • On the illegal market, a $3 bottle of a hundred 80-milligram OxyContin tablets, received under Medicaid, can net the seller up to $8,000 -- $1 per milligram.

In the 2002 Monitoring the Future Survey, a government-sponsored study of drug abuse among high school students and young adults that has been conducted annually since 1975, found that 4 percent of high school seniors had used OxyContin at least once during the past year.

In order to lessen the attractiveness of the drug to illegal drug users, Purdue Pharma L.P., the manufacturer of OxyContin, has attempted to reformulate the drug to make it more difficult for abusers to compromise its time-release mechanism. The attempts so far have not been successful, say observers.

Source: James A. Inciardi and Jennifer L. Goode, "Miracle Medicine or Problem Drug? OxyContin and Prescription Drug Abuse," Consumers' Research, July 2003.


Browse more articles on Health Issues