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Sackler family fights back against allegations Purdue Pharma fueled the opioid epidemic

People visit the Sackler Wing at the Metropolitan Museum of Art on March 28 in New York City. The Sackler family, which controls Purdue Pharma, is lashing out at what it considers “misleading and inflammatory” allegations of the family’s role in the opioid crisis.
People visit the Sackler Wing at the Metropolitan Museum of Art on March 28 in New York City. The Sackler family, which controls Purdue Pharma, is lashing out at what it considers “misleading and inflammatory” allegations of the family’s role in the opioid crisis. (Spencer Platt/Getty Images)
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The family that controls OxyContin-maker Purdue Pharma has asked for the dismissal of a Massachusetts lawsuit that says the company fueled the opioid epidemic, arguing that the claim relies on false assertions.

In a motion delivered to Massachusetts Attorney General Maura Healey on Tuesday, lawyers for members of the Sackler family argue that Healey’s lawsuit contains “misleading and inflammatory allegations” and takes internal company emails out of context in alleging that the Sackler family and Purdue deserve accountability for the addiction and deaths that opioids have spread across the country.

“We are confident the court will look past the inflammatory media coverage generated by the misleading complaint and apply the law fairly by dismissing all of these claims,” Sackler family members said in a statement released Tuesday.

Healey’s lawsuit, filed in June 2018, says that individual members of the Sackler family engaged in acts of deception and misconduct to make as much money as possible from sales of OxyContin, a powerful prescription painkiller. Healey accuses the family of disregarding addiction and safety in the name of profit, saying that members of the family directed sales representatives to push high doses of the drug while knowing its potential dangers.

The family instead says that it acted in a routine way for members of a corporate board: reviewing voluminous documents, including budget presentations, spreadsheets and reports about Purdue’s nationwide operations.

“Not a single document shows an Individual Director engaging in any unlawful conduct regarding the sale of prescription opioids or ordering anyone else to do so,” the Sackler’s motion said, noting that there were no examples of the board “engaging in unlawful conduct or directing others to do so.”

The Sacklers’ lawyers also claim portions of emails Healey used to show allegedly egregious conduct were taken out of context and do not reflect what she claims in the lawsuit. Healey’s lawsuit argues that at an OxyContin launch party in 1996, Richard Sackler told the crowd to imagine natural disasters, such as a hurricane or blizzard.

“The launch of OxyContin Tablets will be followed by a blizzard of prescriptions that will bury the competition,” Healey alleges Sackler said, according to an email quoted in the documents.

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The Sacklers claim the remarks were an allusion, referencing “his delayed arrival at that event due to the well-known Blizzard of 1996.”

Healey’s lawsuit also contends that the Sackler family considered a plan called “Project Tango” that would have allowed the company to get into the business of selling drugs aimed at counteracting opioid abuse. The family claims in court papers that Project Tango was a plan floated by a third-party private equity firm that was “subsequently abandoned.”

The Sackler family is facing increased scrutiny and legal claims surrounding its alleged role in the opioid crisis; Purdue Pharma made billions of dollars in the past two decades as its popular opioids were heavily prescribed, and many of the company’s pills were diverted to a thriving black market.

The New York attorney general claimed in a lawsuit filed last week that the Sackler family steered hundreds of millions of dollars away from Purdue and into personal offshore accounts. Members of the Sackler family paid $75 million in personal funds as part of a $270 million out-of-court settlement between Purdue and the Oklahoma attorney general last week. The Sacklers were not personally named as defendants in that case.

Healey’s action is one of a number of recent lawsuits to accuse the Sackler family of wrongdoing. Her office plans to oppose the motion seeking dismissal.

“Our complaint makes clear the role that Purdue’s executives and directors played in creating and profiting from the opioid crisis,” Healey said in a statement. “Their motions are an attempt to avoid accountability. We will continue our work to expose the conduct that hurt so many families in Massachusetts.”

The Sacklers have donated massive amounts of money to philanthropies and art institutions around the world, many of which are now dealing with blowback and protests because of the allegations regarding the family’s role in the opioid crisis.

The family’s philanthropic trust announced last week that it would stop making donations after the National Portrait Gallery and Tate galleries in London and the Guggenheim Museum in New York announced they would no longer take money from the Sacklers.