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The Billionaire Family Behind OxyContin Explored Profiting Off People Addicted To Opioids

“It is an attractive market. Large unmet need for vulnerable, underserved and stigmatized patient population suffering from substance abuse, dependence and addiction," staff for Purdue Pharma allegedly wrote.

Posted on January 31, 2019, at 8:33 p.m. ET

Darren McCollester / Getty Images

The billionaire family accused of spurring the opioid epidemic with the rise of OxyContin also allegedly considered how to profit from treating people hooked on their drugs or powerful narcotics like heroin and fentanyl, according to a newly released court filing.

Last June, Massachusetts Attorney General Maura Healey sued Purdue Pharma and members of the Sackler family, who sit on its board and allegedly led aggressive strategies to market the blockbuster prescription opioid OxyContin. Her complaint originally contained pages of redactions that obscured the particular allegations against the Sacklers, who were previously best known for their philanthropy toward art and cultural institutions.

Seth Wenig / AP

However, on Thursday, the 277-page complaint was released in its entirety, offering the clearest picture yet of authorities’ arguments that the Sacklers and their company are responsible for the deaths and societal disruption caused by skyrocketing opioid addiction.

The company has called the complaint inaccurate and misleading, adding that most opioid overdoses don’t come from OxyContin, but rather heroin and illegally obtained fentanyl.

“Massachusetts deliberately conflates illegal street drugs with legitimate prescription opioids in an attempt to assign to Purdue liability for all misuse of all opioids,” Purdue said in a statement.

A man uses heroin under a bridge in Philadelphia on Jan. 24, 2018.
Spencer Platt / Getty Images

A man uses heroin under a bridge in Philadelphia on Jan. 24, 2018.

But in previously redacted sections of the complaint, Purdue acknowledged its pain pills are “naturally linked” to addiction. In 2014, employees and the Sacklers considered “Project Tango,” a plan to sell the drug Suboxone to treat millions of people who had become addicted to opioids like OxyContin. ProPublica first reported the existence of the project.

“It is an attractive market. Large unmet need for vulnerable, underserved and stigmatized patient population suffering from substance abuse, dependence and addiction,” Purdue staff allegedly wrote in a report while working with Kathe Sackler and other company leaders, according to the complaint.

But the Sacklers contributed to that stigma around addiction, the complaint states. In a confidential email about company strategy, prosecutors allege Richard Sackler discounted the evidence linking opioids and overdose deaths.

“We have to hammer on the abusers in every way possible,” he allegedly wrote. “They are the culprits and the problem. They are reckless criminals.”

Internal Purdue documents related to Project Tango would later take a different stance.

“This can happen to anyone — from a 50-year-old woman with chronic lower back pain to a [sic] 18-year-old boy with a sports injury, from the very wealthy to the very poor,” a Purdue document stated, according to the complaint.

The team measured the US substance abuse market in billions of dollars, and noted that opioid addiction other than heroin had grown about 20% from 2000 to 2010. It was a business opportunity that Purdue staffers were told required their “immediate attention,” the complaint states.

Court document / Via Massachusetts Attorney General

A chart created by staffers showed the progression from opioids and heroin to medication like Suboxone and behavioral therapy. Between 40% and 60% of people would relapse within one year, the chart noted, creating a market of repeat customers.

In March 2015, the Sacklers agreed to end the project during a business development meeting. The complaint did not offer a reason for the decision.

In its statement, Purdue said the complaint was unfairly negative about Project Tango. Suboxone was an existing drug on the market, and the company performed due diligence before deciding against acquiring it, the company said.

“We believe that no pharmaceutical manufacturer has done more to address the opioid addiction crisis than Purdue,” the company added, “and we continue to work closely with and governments and law enforcement agencies on this difficult social issue.”

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