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Should the Media Be in the Dock Over OxyContin?

Medically, scientifically, statistically illiterate coverage of OxyContin court case; and , of course, no mention of how the media helped drug addicts abuse Oxy in the first place …

There is, perhaps, no more telling example in the whole sorry saga of OxyContin of the media’s utter lack of medical, scientific, and statistical nous, than the following “fact” which was widely cited in coverage of the Purdue Pharma’s plea agreement to having misbranded the opioid pain-relief drug. As the Washington Post told readers:

“OxyContin, the trade name for oxycodone, is a time-released pill that when crushed and ingested gives users a powerful high. The medication was designed as a less dangerous alternative to morphine for people with cancer and chronic pain. But it has proved deadly for consumers and vexing for law enforcement officials, who bemoan the rise in home burglaries and pharmacy break-ins connected to the spread of a drug sometimes called "hillbilly heroin."

In a 2002 report, the Drug Enforcement Administration traced 142 deaths to OxyContin overdose and said the drug contributed to another 318 fatalities. The DEA said the number of deaths related to the substance rose 400 percent from 1996 to 2001.”

This would be the same report that the DEA was forced to publicly admit was so methodologically flawed as to be worthless – after the Government Accounting Office analyzed it; the same report that was rejected by the Food and Drug Administration’s Dr. Cynthia McCormick because the fatality reports it cited were too ambiguous to arrive at any conclusions about the safety of OxyContin; the same report whose expose, the  New York Times Barry Meier reported in his book “Painkiller,” was a “crushing” blow to Laura Nagel, the DEA’s head of Diversion Control.  As Meier wrote:

“[Nagel] had been caught out of her depth and there was nothing for her to fall back on. As a cop she had viewed the death data in terms of black and white, but the picture offered by the medical examiners’ reports was far murkier. It was a rookie’s mistake, and a big one."

It is also the report whose conclusions about the safety of OxyContin were demolished by a peer-reviewed study in the Journal of Analytical Toxicology a year later, which analyzed autopsy reports from 23 states and found that 96.7 percent of deaths (a total of 919 fatalities) in which OxyContin’s active ingredient – oxycodone – was present occurred in people who also had other illegal drugs in their system. In other words, they were drug addicts.

The Washington Post was not the only news organization to miss all this; the Associated Press (and those media outlets who print or derive their own stories from its material, such as The Boston Globe, CBS News, The Chicago Tribune, The Hartford Courant, Forbes, The San Francisco Chronicle, Sci-Tech Today etc) also cited the DEA study and its figures. News outlets such as the Seattle Post Intelligencer and the Houston Chronicle that ran the New York Times news service story, written by Barry Meier, did not cite the DEA report.

The media’s coverage of the risks from OxyContin has been plagued by credulous, shallow reporting of law enforcement “data,” from which reporters crafted a story about an OxyContin epidemic sweeping the nation, much in the same way as the idea of a meth epidemic was created.

Yet the real data on OxyContin makes a strong argument for holding the media responsible for the rise in OxyContin abuse. According to the Drug Abuse Warning Network, the number of times OxyContin was recorded in an emergency department visit due to drug abuse or a suicide attempt went from zero in 1996 to four in 1997 to 527 in 1998 to 1,178 in 1999. The most dramatic increase occurred between 2000 and 2002, when the number of mentions went from 2,772 to 9,998 in 2001 and then to 14, 087 in 2002.

This shows a correlation between the media’s frenetic coverage of OxyContin, which began during the February 2001 sweeps, and the sharp increase in emergency room mentions of abuse during and after this time period. Naturally, reporters explained how to defeat OxyContin’s time delay mechanism so as to get high. As the Washington Post’s Tom Shales observed in a 2001 article in Electronic Media:

"...in the course of 'reporting' on abuse of the drug, they've all aired how-to pieces that include handy, easy-to-follow instructions on the correct abuse procedure. They tell you how to get high. Then the correspondents do follow-up reports expressing shock and dismay that the abuse is becoming more popular."

But while the manufacturer of OxyContin can be taken to court for misbranding, the major source of information about how to actually abuse the drug not only remains free of accountability – many of its practitioners continue to mislead the public on a drug whose value to people suffering acute, chronic pain is beyond medical dispute.

For more information:
For STATS in-depth analysis of how the media covered OxyContin, click here.

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