Last Updated on March 20, 2023 by Dr. Alberto Solà

In a somewhat surprising turn of events, Purdue Pharma plead guilty to criminal charges this week for their reckless marketing of the drug OxyContin which many view as a primary cause of the devastating opioid epidemic in the United States. They also agreed to pay $8.34 billion and will close the company.

This is big news in the medical, addiction, and recovery world. Many have been hoping that Purdue would be held accountable for what they did. However, many people believe this settlement and conviction was not enough and that more should have been required of the company.

To learn more about this important case and Purdue Pharma’s role in the opioid epidemic, read on.

Purdue Pharma and OxyContin

In 1995, Purdue Pharma released OxyContin, a form of oxycodone; they launched it and began marketing it in 1996. At the time, it was viewed as an incredible breakthrough for pain management. It was long-lasting and worked well for patients with moderate, severe, and ongoing, chronic pain. This drug could be taken by mouth independently and outside of a medical facility in both immediate-release and timed-release formats, and it helped a great many people who needed it. As a result, it became well-known and popular among doctors almost right away.

However, today we know due to documents that have been released in the course of the United States’ lawsuit against Purdue Pharma that the drugmaker was reckless about the safety and distribution of this drug from the very beginning. Clinical trials as early as 1994 demonstrated questionable safety for users, but Purdue continued to push it forward as safe.

A memo in 1994 from Michael Friedman, a man who would later become Purdue’s CEO, was sent to members of the Sackler family, the founders of Purdue Pharma. This memo outlined an aggressive approach to the marketing of this drug. Even before OxyContin was released to the public, the plan was to not only encourage its use for people suffering from cancer, but to encourage doctors to prescribe it to others as well. In the 1990s, it was believed that as many as 100 million Americans suffered from chronic pain, so the market for OxyContin seemed vast and endless.

Purdue Pharma wanted to make as much money as it could from this drug. As a result, it was heavily marketed to doctors. Doctors were informed that this drug was safe and non-addictive for all but one percent of users, and that it could be used for a broad variety of applications. Further, Purdue created a “Partners Against Pain” campaign in which doctors would receive incentives for prescribing OxyContin to their patients.

In the end, Purdue Pharma made over $35 billion from the sale of OxyContin.

As a result, millions of Americans became addicted to OxyContin – far more than the one percent that Purdue Pharma suggested might. The opioid epidemic had begun.

The Rise of the Opioid Epidemic

The opioid epidemic is one of the United States’ most devastating tragedies. Today, over 130 people die each day in our country from opioid-related drug overdoses. In 2018, 47,600 people died from overdosing on opioids, and 2 million people suffered from an opioid use disorder.

About 21-29% of people prescribed opioids for chronic pain end up misusing them, and between 8-12% end up developing an opioid use disorder. 4-6% of people who misuse prescription opioids end up transitioning to heroin, and 80% of people who use heroin started with prescription opioids.

Fortunately, there has been some decline in the past few years of opioid abuse and deaths, but we still have a very long way to go. Although things are starting to improve, those who died will never return, and the amount of suffering caused by opioids is vast.

Purdue’s Court Case

On Wednesday, October 21, 2020, Purdue Pharma agreed to plead guilty to three federal criminal charges and was fined $8.34 billion for their role in the creation of the opioid epidemic. The company filed for bankruptcy last year, and does not have the money to pay the fine; therefore, the company will be dissolved and its assets will be used to create a trust. Purdue will pay $3.5 billion fine and will forfeit $2 billion in past profits, and future earnings will go to paying off the remainder.

All of this money will go to opioid treatments and abatement programs in the United States.

However, OxyContin will still be produced; Deputy Attorney General Jeffrey Rosen defended this because there are legitimate uses for the drug. However, the company will also make life-saving drugs for overdoses and addiction treatment medications as well.

A separate civil lawsuit with the Sackler family was also reached for $225 million and in the future, criminal charges may be filed against them.

However, many people and even states do not believe these settlements are enough or that the plans to move forward with ongoing production of OxyContin are wise. Twenty-five state attorneys general contacted the Justice Department expressing their concerns about the government allowing, overseeing, and selling of OxyContin and that this move creates many conflicts of interest.

Moving Forward

Although this is a monumental, landmark case in the history of the opioid epidemic, and even though the $8.34 billion will help many thousands of people to break free from their addictions, the United States has a very long way to go in defeating this epidemic. It’s extremely tragic that this epidemic could have been avoided if it wasn’t for the greed for financial gain, and although the Sackler family and Purdue Pharma are being punished for their role in this epidemic, there are many, many families and friends who mourn the loss of their loved ones as a result of misuse or addiction to opioids.

However, this is a step in the right direction. Accountability is crucial in this situation, and this is a move towards that. As numbers on opioid addiction remain steady and decrease in some areas, there is hope; the ongoing increases were terrifying for over two decades. Hopefully, with the money from this settlement, our country can continue to fight the opioid crisis and down the road and in time, maybe we can even finally beat it.

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