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OxyContin makers kept pushing and profiting as addiction rates soared, new allegations say

A Massachusetts suit alleges shocking details of how Purdue Pharma amped up their marketing and looked at ways to make money from addiction

by Emma Ockerman
Feb 1 2019, 6:36pm

As tens of thousands of Americans became addicted to opioid drugs, members of a powerful drug-industry family — the owners of the OxyContin-maker Purdue Pharma — plowed ahead and raked in a lot of cash, according to newly unredacted allegations made public on Thursday.

Purdue Pharma and members of the Sackler family, which controls the closely held company, were allegedly aware that high-dose OxyContin, an opioid painkiller, could lead to addiction, but continued to promote those stronger drugs anyway, according to a complaint made public Thursday by Massachusetts Attorney General Maura Healey. Members of the Sackler family also allegedly considered marketing an anti-addiction drug to the “attractive market” of people who had become serious opioid users, pursued more aggressive marketing strategies, and increased their own profits from the drug.

Representatives with Purdue Pharma disputed the allegations, resulting from a lawsuit that Healey filed in June, in a statement to VICE News, saying the “release of the remaining portions of the Massachusetts AG’s amended complaint is part of a continuing effort to single out Purdue, blame it for the entire opioid crisis, and try the case in the court of public opinion rather than the justice system.”

The Massachusetts-based suit is part of more than 1,500 complaints filed by groups including state, local, and tribal governments against opioid manufacturers and distributors across the country — attempting to assign some blame for an epidemic of drug addiction that contributed to 70,000-plus overdose deaths in 2017, the latest official CDC annual data available. The Massachusetts case, however, is one of the few to focus solely on Purdue Pharma, and name members of the Sackler family as defendants. A federal judge in Cleveland is currently overseeing a bundle of key opioid lawsuits, which proponents argue could result in a massive settlement that cities and states would then dole out to remedy the epidemic. A trial of three consolidated Ohio lawsuits is scheduled for Oct. 21, according to the New York Times, and is considered the “test case.” A separate trial, the State of Oklahoma v. Purdue Pharma, is scheduled to begin May 28.

Parts of the Massachusetts lawsuit were redacted at Purdue Pharma’s request until a Massachusetts state judge sided on Monday with several media organizations that argued to make the entire complaint public. Purdue Pharma attempted, again, to block the release of the previously confidential parts of the lawsuit, and failed.

Here’s what we learned from the new allegations:

Deep involvement of Richard Sackler

Richard Sackler, the son of a Purdue Pharma founder and a previous president of the company, wrote in a 2008 email to other company officials that managers should “measure our performance by Rx’s by strength, giving higher measures to higher strengths,” asking the company to emphasize selling higher-dose painkillers, according to the court documents. Sackler has denied being involved in the company’s marketing activities, which have long been scrutinized. Two other family members, Jonathan and Mortimer Sackler, were on the 2008 email as well.

OxyContin was first marketed by Purdue in 1996, and became an immensely popular prescription opioid painkiller. But, in 2007, Purdue officials pleaded guilty to criminal charges that they had misled regulators and physicians about the drug’s high potential for abuse and addiction. The company agreed to pay more than $600 million in fines and penalties, which, at the time, was one of the largest payouts ever made by a drug company, according to the New York Times. The Sacklers were not accused of any wrongdoing, but through the Purdue board, they voted to pay the chief executive and top medical officer who pleaded guilty in the 2007 case a combined $9 million to maintain loyalty.

The lawsuit alleges also that Richard Sackler knew the truth about OxyContin’s addictive potential but directed workers to aggressively market the drug to physicians anyway. After the massive 2007 fine, according to the complaint, staff “begged for relief” from persistent members of the Sackler family, and the vice president of sales and marketing allegedly wrote to the chief executive officer that “anything you can do to reduce the direct contact of Richard into the organization is appreciated.” Around that time, the lawsuit alleges, Purdue hired more sales representatives to promote prescriptions of OxyContin, and internal documents show company officials repeatedly badgering staffers about keeping sales high.

How much the family made off the drug

Already, thanks to OxyContin, the Sacklers are one of the wealthiest families in the United States. But since the 2007 fines resulting from deceptive marketing practices, members of the family have received more than $4 billion from Purdue, according to the court documents.

Since the Sackler family is also known for philanthropy, the family name is splashed across museums and institutions around the world, such as the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City, which boasts a massive Sackler Wing. The new revelations of the Sackler’s wealth might spur further protests on those institutions. In March 2018, artists and demonstrators chucked pill bottles into the moat surrounding an ancient Egyptian temple at the Met to protest the family’s donations.

The family looked into profiting off anti-addiction drugs

In 2014 and 2015, Purdue Pharma considered selling buprenorphine, a drug used to treat opioid-addicted patients, describing it as an “attractive market” in an internal memo, according to the lawsuit. Ultimately, the company never became involvedinvolved with selling the anti-addiction drug. The company also considered selling the overdose-revival drug naloxone — often called its brand name Narcan. Prior to the lawsuit being made public, ProPublica and Stat reported on the company’s plan to pursue profiting off addiction treatment.

Purdue Pharma executives considered the sale of opioids and treatment drugs “naturally linked,” according to internal correspondence cited in the court documents, and thought the company should become an “end-to-end pain provider” by making drugs to treat pain, while also making drugs to treat addiction to painkillers.

A spokesman for Purdue said it was an “egregious mischaracterization” to cast “negative light Purdue’s due diligence on a potential acquisition of a drug for the treatment of addiction that was already on the market."

Cover: In this Aug. 17, 2018 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. The Sackler family’s ties to OxyContin and the painkiller’s role in the deadly opioid crisis are bringing the Sacklers a new kind of attention and complicating their philanthropic legacy. (AP Photo/Jessica Hill)