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Lawsuit: Purdue Pharma Blamed OxyContin Abuse on ‘Reckless Criminals’

According to new court documents, the pharmaceutical company’s strategy for addressing criticism of the drug’s risks was to deflect blame onto patients who became addicted

Painkiller Guidelines OxyContin pills arranged for a photo at a pharmacy in Montpelier, Vt. Critics of how prescription painkillers are administered in the U.S. are calling on health officials to phase out hospital procedures and questionnaires used to manage pain. More than five dozen non-profit groups and medical experts sent a letter, to the Joint Commission, a non-profit agency that accredits U.S. hospitals, asking it to revisit its standards for pain managementPainkillers-Pain Measures, Montpelier, USA

OxyContin was released in 1996.

Toby Talbot/AP/REX/Shutterstock

At Purdue Pharma’s launch party for OxyContin in 1996, one of the company’s owners, Dr. Richard Sackler, told the audience to imagine a series of natural disasters — an earthquake, volcanic eruption, hurricane — before gleefully predicting that the opioid painkiller would generate “a blizzard of prescriptions that will bury the competition.” That’s according to new court documents filed on Tuesday, January 15th, as part of a lawsuit brought by Massachusetts Attorney General Maura Healey, which accuses the company and its owners of deceiving doctors and patients about OxyContin’s risks.

The memo implicates eight Sackler family members, as well as nine board members and executives, in directing an aggressive marketing strategy meant to blanket the country with a painkiller they knew was addictive and dangerous, igniting a nationwide opioid crisis that has killed more than 200,000 people since 1996.

“Over the next 20 years, the Sacklers made Richard’s boast come true,” lawyers for the Attorney General’s Office wrote in the  274-page memorandum. “They created a manmade disaster. Their blizzard of dangerous prescriptions buried children and parents and grandparents across Massachusetts, and the burials continue.”

The lawsuit is one of hundreds brought against the Connecticut company, but it’s the first to name the company’s executives, including the Sackler family. According to the New York Times, Purdue Pharma has long portrayed the Sacklers as being uninvolved with the company’s day-to-day operations, but Healey’s memo makes public, for the first time, the “domineering” role Richard Sackler played in driving the company’s sales strategy. According to the filing, the former Purdue Pharma President — whose father founded the company — instructed sales representatives to urge doctors to prescribe the highest dosage of OxyContin, because it was the most profitable.

Five years later, amidst growing concerns over the dangers associated with OxyContin, Sackler pursued relationships with two of Massachusetts’ leading academic medical centers, expanding the number of prescribing physicians and generating good publicity within the medical community. According to the lawsuit, Sackler’s strategy for addressing criticism of the drug’s risks was to deflect blame onto patients who became addicted or overdosed.

“We have to hammer on the abusers in every way possible,” Sackler wrote in an February 2001 email outlining his strategy. “They are the culprits and the problem. They are reckless criminals.”

According to Healey’s lawsuit, “the Sacklers have hammered Massachusetts families in every way possible … and the stigma they used as a weapon made the crisis worse.”

In response to the latest court filing, Purdue Pharma sent a lengthy statement to Rolling Stone criticizing the Massachusetts Attorney General’s Office for their “rush to vilify a single manufacturer … 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,” the statement continues. “The Attorney General has cherry-picked from among tens of millions of emails and other business documents … [and] is littered with biased and inaccurate characterizations of these documents and individual defendants. … Purdue and the individual defendants will aggressively defend against these misleading allegations.”

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