“Leave the World a better place than when you entered it.” Words from the late Arthur Sackler: a philanthropist, a marketing genius, a doctor, and a man culpable of derailing and ending the lives of hundreds of thousands of Americans.
The Sackler family (worth a collective $13 billion) owns the Connecticut-based Purdue Pharmaceuticals. Purdue Pharma has been under intense scrutiny recently for the company’s unethical marketing of its blockbuster drug: OxyContin. OxyContin is a brand name opioid that entered the market in 1996 and was marketed as a sort of “miracle drug,” an opioid that was “longer lasting and less addictive.” While this was quickly disproven, the marketing of this drug did not reflect this switch. Purdue Pharmaceuticals continued to market OxyContin as an incredible and life-changing drug with minimal to no negative consequences.
Over two decades later—when over 200,000 Americans have died from opioid overdoses, and 130 more continue to die each day—this claim is both laughable and repulsive. As more and more lives are being cut short, it makes no sense that these prescriptions are still being written and Purdue Pharmaceuticals is still allowed to make such claims of grandeur. They continue to trick not only the men and women in the white coats, but also their patients.
The opioid epidemic has ravaged America for two decades and for many, these pills have been anything but the lifeline they were marketed as. This epidemic shows no signs of slowing down either. Hospitalizations for opioid overdoses are still increasing. Deaths caused by prescription opioids are still increasing. Admissions into substance abuse treatment centers are increasing. Deaths caused by heroin and other injection drugs are increasing. Incarceration due to injection drug use is increasing.
Opioid abuse is a multi-faceted and often larger than a single prescription. The first step is opioid use: the use of prescribed pain pills for pain. The second is opioid misuse: use of opioids prescribed for someone other than the user. The third is opioid abuse: over-usage of opioids—at this point tolerance and dependence set it. Finally, many people turn to injection drug use: in order to get the same high after the tolerance kicks in, many people switch to other means such as heroin (a much stronger high and only about $5 compared to the $20 street price of a single strong opioid pill). Not only do the drugs themselves pose a danger—this pattern of injection drug use also puts individuals at much higher risk of acquiring infections such as HIV and Hepatitis A and B.
While stats like these look at the opioid epidemic as a whole, it is crucial to zoom in on Purdue and understand why they are so liable. For starters, Purdue Pharmaceuticals marketed unethically. They made huge unsubstantiated claims about the safety of using opioids for long term usage—such as for chronic pain—without the risk of developing an addiction. Additionally, once they began to understand the risks, if they didn’t know them from the beginning, it is highly speculated (and probable) that they buried the evidence and trials. Finally, OxyContin was aware that their pills were being crushed, put into solution, and injected. However, they were very slow to revise their formulations into pills that could not be crushed. All of this substantiates the fact that Purdue created and marketed a drug that they knew would be a huge success, because they knew they could make sure people couldn’t live without it.
The opioid epidemic is deeply rooted in this country and it would be incorrect and careless to say that Purdue Pharma is the sole villain. This being said, while OxyContin is only one brand of opioids, it has a hold on the market and is the perfect example of how not being transparent can have disastrous consequences. Despite facing intense controversy since the beginning, Purdue Pharma has received only a slap on the wrist and has achieved monumental monetary success off of a highly addictive, life-altering, and often life-threatening drug.
Recently, Purdue Pharmaceuticals settled out of court with the state of Oklahoma for $270 million. This settlement came the day after the judge declined the defendants appeal for a delayed trial and announced that the trial would be televised. Purdue has been in many trials over the past decade and had to pay off huge settlements. This being said, millions of dollars only mean so much when your company has made billions from a drug that you can still market. These suits have acted retroactively but have not been able to make substantial changes moving forward. None have been able to even force Purdue to more accurately label their drugs, let alone reduce OxyContin sales.
As it stands now, Purdue Pharmaceuticals faces over 2,000 lawsuits across the United States. Purdue has admitted to exploring bankruptcy, following a long-standing, seedy corporate history of escaping legal consequences of their own volition. Filing for Chapter 11 bankruptcy would allow Purdue to fly under the radar and lose only a fraction of the profit they would otherwise if they took on the cases one by one.
This action would be vile and disgraceful—taking away the slight possibility of justice for families in the wake of unimaginable loss have. Vile and disgraceful no doubt, but in line with this company’s two-decade tradition of dishonesty, misinformation, and malice.