Richard Sackler — the scion of the billionaire family behind embattled drugmaker Purdue Pharma — didn’t want his drug reps telling doctors that Purdue’s powerful prescription opioid, OxyContin, was just as strong and addictive as morphine, according to sealed testimony reviewed by ProPublica and STAT.
Sackler, who was once president of the company, spoke under oath in August 2015 about Purdue’s shady marketing practices surrounding OxyContin. But until Thursday, the 337-page deposition was secret.
Sackler said in his deposition that he didn’t want OxyContin “to be polluted by all of the bad associations that patients and healthcare givers had with morphine,” a drug used to treat cancer and end-of-life patients. So he didn’t see harm in a sales representative telling a doctor “there may be less euphoria” with OxyContin, which was untrue, especially if a patient were to abuse the drug. Purdue’s then-head of sales and marketing, Michael Friedman, even told Sackler in 1997 that it would be “extremely dangerous at this early stage in the life of the product” to allow physicians to think the drug was as strong or stronger than morphine, since physicians already thought oxycodone, the active ingredient in their drug, was weaker. “I do not plan to do anything about that,” Friedman wrote, according to ProPublica and STAT.
Sackler responded: “I agree with you. Is there a general agreement, or are there some holdouts?”
Purdue criticized the release of the sealed deposition in a statement and said Sackler’s remarks echoed the company’s efforts to “appropriately reflect OxyContin’s risks of abuse and addiction as the science of opioid pain therapy evolved over time.”
Sackler’s 2015 deposition stemmed from a Kentucky-based lawsuit, which Purdue paid $24 million to settle. His words offer a rare glimpse of a family member discussing, at length, just how aggressively Purdue marketed Oxycontin and concealed its potential for abuse from doctors since the drug’s introduction in 1996.
The company still faces a barrage of lawsuits from more than 1,500 cities and counties that want to hold it accountable for the role OxyContin may have played in getting people hooked on opioids. More than 70,000 people died of drug overdoses in 2017, although the majority of those overdoses were related to the illicit, synthetic opioid fentanyl.
Another lawsuit brought by Massachusetts’ attorney general specifically accused Sackler of leading doctors to believe that OxyContin was a weaker drug than morphine and therefore, safe to prescribe in frequent, high doses. The suit also alleges Sackler explicitly told Purdue staff not to tell physicians this wasn’t the truth.
Still, Sackler maintained those marketing efforts were fair — and paying off.
“You won’t believe how committed I am to make OxyContin a huge success. It is almost that I dedicated my life to it,” Sackler wrote in an email three years after the drug was first introduced, according to the deposition seen by ProPublica and STAT.
Less than a decade later, in 2007, the company and three of its top executives were criminally charged in a federal court with deceiving doctors about the drug, and the company agreed to pay $700 million in fines over allegations that it deceived the public.
Cover image: In this Aug. 17, 2018, file photo, family and friends who have lost loved ones to OxyContin and opioid overdoses leave pill bottles in protest outside the headquarters of Purdue Pharma, which is owned by the Sackler family, in Stamford, Conn. (AP Photo/Jessica Hill, File)