Members of the Sackler family, which became one of America's wealthiest through their company Purdue Pharma, are accused of personally pushing the growth of OxyContin prescriptions to become even richer, despite knowing the risks of the powerful opioid.
The allegations were made by the Massachusetts attorney general in a court filing on Tuesday. It was the first time the Sacklers were so closely tied to Purdue Pharma's promotion of the painkiller OxyContin, which authorities in Massachusetts and other states argue led to the broader opioid crisis.
"Even when Purdue knew people in Massachusetts were addicted and dying, Purdue treated doctors and their patients as targets to sell more drugs. At the top of Purdue, a small group of executives led the deception and pocketed millions of dollars," Attorney General Maura Healey's complaint against the company said. "On behalf of the Commonwealth, the Attorney General asks the Court to end Purdue’s illegal conduct and make Purdue and its culpable executives pay for the harm they inflicted in our state."
Healey sued the company, a number of executives, and eight members of the Sackler family in June on behalf of 670 Massachusetts residents who were prescribed OxyContin, then became addicted to opioids and died. But initially, Purdue insisted portions of court documents related to the Sacklers be redacted. The company has long sought to distance the Sacklers, the 19th-richest family in the US, whose name is attached to major universities and art institutions, from various inquiries involving the company, its operations, and OxyContin.
Tuesday's filing removed many of those redactions and directly accused the Sacklers of leading the alleged misconduct at Purdue and causing much of the opioid epidemic.
"They hired hundreds of workers to carry out their wishes, and they fired those who didn’t sell enough drugs. They got more patients on opioids, at higher doses, for longer, than ever before. They paid themselves billions of dollars," the complaint said. "They are responsible for addiction, overdose, and death that damaged millions of lives. They should be held accountable now."
In 2007, Purdue was ordered to pay $600 million in fines and other payments for misleading doctors, regulators, and patients about the addictive nature of OxyContin. Three executives were also ordered to personally pay millions of dollars.
But according to Healey's lawsuit, the misleading and criminal practices continued, not only at the direction of company executives but also the Sacklers themselves.
"Most of all, the Sacklers cared about money," the complaint said. "Millions of dollars were not enough. They wanted billions. They cared more about money than about patients, or their employees, or the truth."
The complaint includes communications between the Sacklers and Purdue staff, in particular, Richard Sackler. Though he stepped down as president of the company, he continued to be involved in details of sales strategy and marketing, the complaint said. For years after walking away from the company's day-to-day operations, he continued to request detailed reports on drug sales and sales representatives' performance, the complaint said.
"Richard Sackler kept pushing for more sales. After one week of prescriptions
doubled Purdue’s forecast, Richard wrote to the sales staff: 'I had hoped for better results,'" the complaint said.
A confidential memo between family members laid out Purdue's strategy: to keep more people on higher doses of opioids for longer amounts of time, the complaint said.
But by 2017, the tide was turning. Multiple newspaper investigations chronicled the dangers of prescription opioids, families affected by addiction were speaking out, and government agencies like the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention had also confirmed that opioids were killing patients at unprecedented rates. Purdue staff recommended the Sackler family create a foundation to help solve the opioid crisis and focus its marketing on more limited prescriptions that were appropriate for patients' pain.
"The Sacklers did not redirect the company toward appropriate use or create the
suggested family foundation," the complaint said. "Instead, they decided to sell harder."
In a statement, Purdue said their medicines represented only 2% of opioid pain prescriptions, and the lawsuit unfairly blamed the company for a complicated public health crisis. It also defended its work in complying with marketing requirements set by the previous lawsuit settlement, and its efforts to make OxyContin less prone to abuse.
"Massachusetts’ amended complaint irresponsibly and counterproductively casts every prescription of OxyContin as dangerous and illegitimate, substituting its lawyers’ sensational allegations for the expert scientific determinations of the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) and completely ignoring the millions of patients who are prescribed Purdue Pharma’s medicines for the management of their severe chronic pain," the statement said.
The company also said most overdose deaths in Massachusetts were caused by heroin and illegal use of fentanyl, not its prescription opioids.
"Purdue and the individual defendants will aggressively defend against these misleading allegations," the statement said. "In the meantime, we continue to fight for balance in the public discourse so that society can simultaneously help pain patients in need and create real solutions to the complex problem of addiction."