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Lawsuit claims Sackler family disregarded safety, opioid addiction in Purdue push to profit from OxyContin

The Massachusetts Attorney General has sued the owners of Purdue Pharma, saying the company tried to push higher dosages of its painkiller OxyContin and then profit from treating those who became addicted. (Jessica Hill/AP)

Members of the family that owns Purdue Pharma, the company that created the powerful opioid painkiller OxyContin, directed sales representatives to push extremely high doses of the drug and later tried to get involved in opioid addiction treatment as a way to boost profits, according to a lawsuit.

Massachusetts Attorney General Maura Healey alleges the Sackler family, which controls Purdue, engaged in frequent acts of deception and misconduct to make as much money as possible, even as OxyContin sparked the nation’s opioid crisis and its staggering toll of addiction and death.

In parts of the lawsuit, Healey paints a portrait of insatiable greed and disregard for the suffering that the company’s main product had caused.

“Eight people in a single family made the choices that caused much of the opioid epidemic,” the lawsuit contends.

Healey claims the Sacklers pushed for more patients to be on higher doses of opioids for long periods of time. In one email, Richard Sackler, a former president of Purdue, personally directed sales representatives to push doctors to prescribe extremely high doses of opioids, according to court documents. The Sacklers, Healey claims, knew that higher doses put patients at greater risk.

“Millions of dollars were not enough. They wanted billions,” the lawsuit says. “They cared more about money than about patients, or their employees, or the truth.”

‘Hammer on the abusers’: Mass. attorney general alleges Purdue Pharma tried to shift blame for opioid addiction

Purdue spokesman Robert Josephson said Healey’s lawsuit is “part of a continuing effort to single out Purdue” for the opioid crisis, and the idea that the company only tried to push extremely high doses of OxyContin is a “fictional narrative.”

Steve Miller, the chair of Purdue’s board of directors, said members of the Sackler family “are good people and their history of philanthropy is truly admirable. The mischaracterizations of them in the litigation are worse than unfair and do not resemble the people whom I have come to know and admire.”

Healey initially released the complaint last month with significant parts that were kept out of public view; a Massachusetts judge later ruled that a full, unredacted copy should be released.

While much about the Sacklers’ role in the opioid epidemic has previously emerged, the lawsuit uses internal company emails, reports and board minutes to detail the Sacklers’ conduct from 2007 to 2018.

The lawsuit argues that the Sacklers falsely blamed patients for the dangers of opioids; pushed them on older people without disclosing the higher risk; constantly tried to persuade doctors and others to prescribe higher doses, especially the extremely profitable 80-milligram tablet; and continually returned to doctors who were vastly overprescribing OxyContin to encourage them to hand out more.

In 2007, Purdue paid $600 million in fines and its executives pleaded guilty to federal criminal charges for claiming their product was less addictive than other painkillers.

After the court judgment, the company returned to some of those same practices, the lawsuit claims, this time with the core of its effort centered around an ever-growing army of sales representatives who promoted OxyContin by plying prescribers with lunches and gifts.

The drug industry’s triumph over the DEA

In October 2015, Purdue employed more than 700 sales representatives, the lawsuit says. Each was driven — and incentivized with bonuses — to visit more than seven prescribers a day. In 2014, their target was 758,164 visits. For 2018, it was more than 1 million. From 2008 to 2016, the lawsuit claims, the Sackler family paid itself nearly $4.3 billion from the sales of its drugs.

Other marketing efforts included persuading a Tufts University program to teach two unbranded Purdue curriculums in 2014. The Sacklers had established the master’s level program in pain research and policy with a gift in 1999.

Behind the sales force effort was Richard Sackler, who is portrayed in the lawsuit as a relentless, hyper-demanding tyrant obsessed with driving up growth by any means necessary.

After one week of prescriptions in 2011 doubled Purdue’s original forecast, he wrote to the sales staff: “I had hoped for better results.” When a new Purdue narcotic was on track to surpass every drug in its class, Sackler asked his sales reps: “Do you share my disappointment?”

As overdose deaths linked to prescription opioids soared, Purdue looked the other way, the attorney general says. In 2009, a sales rep emailed a top Purdue official to alert them that the company was promoting its opioids to what was certainly an organized drug ring operating out of an illegal pill mill. “Shouldn’t the DEA be contacted about this?” the sales rep asked.

“Purdue sat on the information and did not report it to the authorities for more than two years,” the lawsuit contends, “until after the pill mill doctor had already been arrested.”

In 2018, as the opioid crisis continued to grow, Sackler won a patent for a drug to treat opioid addiction, the lawsuit says. In 2014, Purdue laid plans to become an “end-to-end pain provider” that could provide drugs to both treat pain and then addiction, but abandoned the effort.