According to documents recently uncovered as part of an ongoing lawsuit, members of the family that owns Purdue Pharma engaged in an intentional scheme to heavily market the drug Oxycontin while downplaying the addiction risks, leading to the ongoing opioid abuse epidemic in the United States.
While the documents have not yet been released to the public, the existence was mentioned in a filing by the Massachusetts Attorney General’s office, which is pursuing a lawsuit against Purdue Pharma and the Sackler family, which owns privately-held pharmaceutical company.
The New York Times reported on Wednesday that the documents reveal that at a 1990s launch party for OxyContin, Purdue Pharma President Richard Sackler predicted the drug would result in a “blizzard of prescriptions” that would bury the competition. Later, in the early 2000s, when OxyContin addiction and abuse became a concern, he directed the family to hammer drug users as the culprit.
Massachusetts Attorney General Maura Healey filed a complaint (PDF) against Purdue Pharma and members of the Sackler family in June 2018. The lawsuit accuses the company and OxyContin of being one of the primary causes of the opioid crisis gripping the nation.
“Purdue Pharma created the epidemic and profited from it through a web of illegal deceit,” the lawsuit states. “First, Purdue deceived doctors and patients to get more and more people on its dangerous drugs. Second, Purdue misled them to take higher and more dangerous doses. Third, Purdue deceived them to stay on its drugs for longer and more harmful periods of time. All the while, Purdue peddled falsehoods to keep patients away from safer alternatives.”
The portions of the new documents quoted in the recent court filings paint a picture of a company that was exceedingly callous toward the very consumers whose pain it was claiming to alleviate, critics say. However, company officials say Massachusetts attorneys are cherry-picking portions of the documents to paint the company in a bad light.
Massachusetts is not alone in going after the drug manufacturers.
There are currently more than 1,300 opioid addiction lawsuits pending in the federal court system, each seeking damages from various manufacturers and distributors of the powerful narcotic medications over addiction and abuse problems that have plagued the nation in the recent years. Many of the claims are filed by communities.
Given common questions of fact and law raised in the claims, the U.S. JPML established centralized proceedings for the opioid cases last year, consolidating the claims before U.S. District Judge Dan A. Polster in the Northern District of Ohio, for coordinated discovery and pretrial proceedings.
The Massachusetts lawsuit is pending in state court, however.
On Wednesday, at her inaugural address, Healey vowed to continue to pursue the Oxycontin litigation against Purdue Pharma.
“I promise you – we’ll hold opioid makers accountable for the role they played in creating this crisis,” she said. “We’ll do whatever it takes to hold this company accountable and get the justice our families deserve.”
The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) reports that the opioid crisis continues to grow in scope, with accidental drug overdoses claiming more lives than auto accidents.
In 2017, more than 70,000 drug overdose deaths occurred in the country and 68% involved an opioid painkiller. Of those, 60% involved synthetic opioids like fentanyl. This was a 45% increase from 2016, according to a recent CDC report.
Fentanyl is a synthetic opioid painkiller 50 to 100 times stronger than morphine. It is linked to more overdose deaths than any other drug in the U.S. and accounts for one-third of all fatal overdoses, according to a recent CDC report. It is now considered the most dangerous drug in the U.S.