Family behind OxyContin maker engineered opioid crisis, Massachusetts AG says
The Massachusetts attorney general is targeting Purdue Pharma and eight members of the Sackler family who own the company, alleging in a lawsuit they are "personally responsible" for deceptively selling OxyContin.
The attorney general, Maura Healey, sat down with "CBS This Morning." She alleges the Sackler family hired "hundreds of workers to carry out their wishes" – pushing doctors to get "more patients on opioids, at higher doses, for longer, than ever before" all while paying "themselves billions of dollars."
In her lawsuit, Healey names eight members of the family that own Purdue Pharma, alleging they "micromanaged" a "deceptive sales campaign." In the conclusion to the complaint, Healey said the Sackler family used the power at their disposal to engineer an opioid crisis. Almost 400,000 people died from opioid overdoses between 1999 and 2017, according to the CDC.
Healey said this is the most complete picture to date of how the opioid crisis began, and why the Sackler family itself should be held accountable. "They don't want to accept blame for this. They blame doctors, they blame prescribers and worst of all, they blame patients," Healey said.
Purdue Pharma called the accusations "a rush to vilify" the drugmaker. There's a lot in the lawsuit that's still redacted, and lawyers for Purdue plan to argue on Friday that it should stay that way.
Healey said Purdue Pharma and the Sackler family are one and the same.
In one alleged instance, then-president Richard Sackler devised what Healey describes as Sackler's "solution to the overwhelming evidence of overdose and death," writing in a confidential email, "we have to hammer on the abusers in every way possible. They are the culprits and the problem."
In a statement, Purdue Pharma said the lawsuit "distorts critical facts" and "cherry-picked from among tens of millions of emails and other business documents."
To that, Healey said, "If Purdue thinks we're cherry picking, I invite them to produce all of their documents and let the public judge for itself."
CBS News reached out to the members of the Sackler family named in the complaint, as well as their lawyer. Three declined comment through a press representative and we never heard back from the rest. But this is a family that rarely addresses its connection to the company that made it rich.
Jonathan Burke, a former addict, suggested Sackler take a dose of his own medicine. "I would personally tell him to take two a day for two weeks and see how he ends up," Burke said.
Burke said his battle with addiction began 11 years ago, with a dirt bike accident and a two-month prescription of OxyContin. Just two weeks later, he was hooked.
"I'll be 29 on Friday and didn't think I'd make it to 25, to be honest," Burke said. "The way that your brain becomes re-hardwired after an addiction is just absolutely insane."
Burke later turned to illegal drugs and ended up stealing to fund his habit. "It literally damaged every relationship with every family member, friend, person I acquired in my life," he said.
Burke's home state of Massachusetts is one of 36 states now suing Purdue Pharma, accusing the company of downplaying the dangers of OxyContin. In a 2007 federal settlement, the company admitted to falsely selling the drug as "less addictive" than rival products. The company paid $630 million in fines.
Purdue Pharma told CBS News in a statement: "Massachusetts' amended complaint irresponsibly and counterproductively casts every prescription of OxyContin as dangerous and illegitimate, substituting its lawyers' sensational allegations for the expert scientific determinations of the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) and completely ignoring the millions of patients who are prescribed Purdue Pharma's medicines for the management of their severe chronic pain.
In a rush to vilify a single manufacturer whose medicines represent less than 2 percent of opioid pain prescriptions rather than doing the hard work of trying to solve a complex public health crisis, the complaint distorts critical facts and cynically conflates prescription opioid medications with illegal heroin and fentanyl, which are the leading cause of overdose deaths in Massachusetts. Throughout the complaint, the Commonwealth disregards basic facts about Purdue's prescription opioid medications including that:
• FDA, the scientific agency charged with approving and regulating medicines in the U.S., has approved OxyContin and other Purdue opioid medications as safe and effective for their intended use;
• Prescription opioids are among the most tightly controlled medicines in the United States, and Purdue's OxyContin is a Schedule II controlled substance, meaning that it is in a class of medicines with the highest level of control by the US Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA);
• The first information that healthcare providers see when reading the FDA-approved label for OxyContin is a prominent "black box" warning that includes information about the risks of addiction and overdose; and
• Purdue promoted its opioid medications based on the medical and scientific evidence in the FDA approved label and did so to licensed physicians who have the training and responsibility to ensure that medications are properly prescribed.
The Attorney General's allegations also omit key facts about FDA's regulation of opioid medications:
• In April 2010, FDA approved a reformulated version OxyContin, which Purdue developed with properties intended to deter abuse. Purdue worked for over a decade to develop the new formulation, and it was the first FDA-approved opioid with abuse deterrent properties;
• The Massachusetts Attorney General commended the FDA for supporting abuse-deterrent formulations and later required insurers to cover them; and
• FDA has directly addressed many of the issues within the Massachusetts' complaint and has continued to determine that Purdue Pharma's opioids are safe and effective for their intended use.
Perhaps one of the biggest omissions in the Attorney General's complaint is that, in 2013, the Office of Inspector General (OIG) of the Department of Health and Human Services determined that Purdue had fulfilled its requirements under a 2007-2012 Corporate Integrity Agreement (CIA) relating to the marketing of its medications and released Purdue from the agreement. Furthermore, during the term of this five-year agreement, Purdue had submitted annual reports to a designated OIG monitor and had engaged an Independent Review Organization that evaluated specified elements of Purdue's compliance program on an periodic basis to assess compliance with the terms of the CIA.
To distract from these omissions of fact and the other numerous deficiencies of its claims, the Attorney General has cherry-picked from among tens of millions of emails and other business documents produced by Purdue. The complaint is littered with biased and inaccurate characterizations of these documents and individual defendants, often highlighting potential courses of action that were ultimately rejected by the company.
Purdue and the individual defendants will aggressively defend against these misleading allegations. In the meantime, we continue to fight for balance in the public discourse so that society can simultaneously help pain patients in need and create real solutions to the complex problem of addiction."
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