OxyContin maker Purdue Pharma cuts remaining sales force

(Reuters) - OxyContin maker Purdue Pharma LP, facing a wave of lawsuits blaming it for helping fuel the U.S. opioid epidemic, said on Wednesday it had laid off about 350 employees this week including the remainder of its already-downsized sales force.

FILE PHOTO: Bottles of prescription painkiller OxyContin, 40mg pills, made by Purdue Pharma L.D. sit on a shelf at a local pharmacy, in Provo, Utah, U.S., April 25, 2017. REUTERS/George Frey/File Photo

The Stamford, Connecticut-based pharmaceutical manufacturer said about half of the affected employees were part of its sales force, which had already seen cuts announced in February when Purdue said it would stop promoting opioids to physicians.

At the time, Purdue said its remaining 200 sales representatives would focus on promoting on non-opioid products. The layoffs, adding to 380 employees who left the company earlier this year, will leave Purdue with about 550 employees as the company says it is shifting to focus on pursuing new drugs.

“Purdue Pharma is taking significant steps to transform and diversify beyond our historic focus of pain medications,” Purdue said in a statement.

Opioids were involved in more than 42,000 overdose deaths in the United States in 2016, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Privately-held Purdue and other opioid manufacturers have been fighting hundreds of lawsuits by states, counties and cities accusing the companies of pushing addictive painkillers through deceptive marketing.

The lawsuits have generally accused Purdue of deceiving doctors and patients by misrepresenting the risks of addiction and death associated with the prolonged use of its prescription opioids. The company denies the allegations.

While Purdue has engaged in settlement talks with a group of state attorneys general conducting an investigation into it and other opioid manufacturers, a growing number of states have chosen to instead take the company to court.

In total, Purdue faces lawsuits by 24 states and the territory of Puerto Rico.

Most recently, Massachusetts Attorney General Maura Healey on June 12 sued Purdue and 16 current or former Purdue executives and board members, including members of the wealthy Sackler family, which owns the company.

Purdue and three executives pleaded guilty in 2007 to federal charges related to the misbranding of OxyContin and agreed to pay a total of $634.5 million in penalties.

Sales of OxyContin have been declining in recent years. OxyContin generated $1.74 billion in sales in 2017, down from $2.6 billion five years earlier, according to data compiled by Symphony Health Solutions.

Purdue continues to sell opioids. It has been directing doctors with opioid-related questions to its medical affairs department.

(This version of the story corrects spelling of Stamford in second paragraph)

Reporting by Nate Raymond in Boston; Editing by Frances Kerry