Last week a lawsuit filed in Massachusetts against the makers of the painkiller OxyContin threw an unwanted spotlight on the company’s owners, who belong to one of the richest families in the United States. Purdue Pharma has already paid tens of millions in settlements to state and federal governments for deceptive business practices that put patients at risk, but the state of Massachusetts is the first to try to hold the company’s owners, the Sackler family, personally accountable in court.
Purdue Pharma started selling OxyContin in 1996 as the first time-released narcotic. Each pill contained higher amounts of the painkiller that released more slowly into the body. The company said OxyContin was less likely to cause dependence because patients would need fewer doses. But it also provided a more intense high when abused.
As deaths from OxyContin misuse soared, the Sacklers showed little concern, according to new documents filed Jan. 15 in the Massachusetts suit. The documents allege that members of the Sackler family directed the aggressive and deceptive marketing of OxyContin and failed to report what they knew of abuses and deaths from the drug to the government.
When a federal prosecutor in 2001 said 59 people died from OxyContin in one state, Purdue Pharma’s then-President Richard Sackler sent an email to company officials, saying, “This is not too bad. It could have been far worse.” Court documents also included an email Sackler sent at about the same time, strategically shifting the blame for the crisis from drug companies to the addicts: “They are the culprits and the problem. They are reckless criminals.”
“Richard followed that strategy for the rest of his career: collect millions from selling addictive drugs, and blame the terrible consequences on the people who became addicted,” Massachusetts Attorney General Maura Healey’s office said in a statement
Healey wants a jury to find Purdue Pharma and eight members of the Sackler family guilty of public nuisance, negligence, and unfair and deceptive acts and practices. If found guilty, they would have to pay damages, fees, and return the money they gained through the deceptive practices.
The Sacklers have a museum at Harvard University and a wing at New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art named for them. As the opioid crisis deepened this past year, protesters scattered pill bottles and hung derogatory banners at the museums, demanding the museums remove the Sackler name.
Purdue Pharma released a statement in response, claiming the state of Massachusetts was targeting one company instead of “doing the hard work of trying to solve a complex public health crisis.”
In 2007, a federal investigation led to criminal charges against three Purdue Pharma executives who admitted to deceiving the public about the risks of OxyContin, with the company paying out more than $600 million in fines. Purdue Pharma also paid out $19.5 million in a settlement with 26 states and the District of Columbia in 2009. So far, at least 37 states have sued the company in cases related to OxyContin abuse.