Lawsuits ramp up pressure on family that owns opioid company

In this Aug. 17, 2018, file photo, family and friends who have lost loved ones to OxyContin and opioid overdoses leave pill bottles in protest outside the headquarters of Purdue Pharma, which is owned by the Sackler family, in Stamford, Conn. A new filing in a Massachusetts case ramps up the legal and financial pressure against the Sackler family, which owns the company that makes OxyContin. | Associated Press photo by Jessica Hill, St. George News

(AP) — The legal pressure on the prominent family behind the company that makes OxyContin, the prescription painkiller that helped fuel the nation’s opioid epidemic, is likely to get more intense.

The Sackler family came under heavy scrutiny this week when a legal filing in a Massachusetts case asserted that family members and company executives sought to push prescriptions of the drug and downplay its risks. Those revelations are likely to be a preview of the claims in a series of expanding legal challenges.

Members of the family that controls Connecticut-based Purdue Pharma are also defendants in a lawsuit brought by New York’s Suffolk County. Few, if any, other governments have sued the family so far.

But Paul Hanly, a lawyer representing the county, said he expects to add the Sacklers to other opioid suits. He explained last year that he was targeting the family, known for its donations to some of the world’s great museums and universities, in part because they took “tens of billions” of dollars out of Purdue Pharma.

Looming as potentially the biggest legal and financial risk for the family is a massive consolidated federal case playing out in Ohio.

More than 1,000 government entities have sued Purdue, along with other drugmakers and distributors, claiming they are partly culpable for a drug overdose crisis that resulted in a record 72,000 deaths in 2017. The majority of those deaths were from legal or illicit opioids.

The company documents at the heart of the Massachusetts claims also could be evidence in the Ohio lawsuits, which are being overseen by a federal judge. The allegations ramp up pressure on the industry — and perhaps the Sacklers — to reach a settlement, said Paul Nolette, a political science professor at Marquette University who studies the role of state attorneys general.

Having Sackler family members named as defendants in Massachusetts “indicates that the government attorneys believe they have the ‘smoking guns’ necessary to broaden the potential liability of those at the top of the organization,” he said in an email.

The allegations could tarnish a name that is best known for its generosity to museums worldwide including New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art, which has a Sackler wing, and London’s Tate Modern.

A sign with the Sackler name is displayed at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, Thursday, Jan. 17, 2019. | Associated Press photo by Seth Wenig, St. George News

The Sackler name also is on a gallery at the Smithsonian, a wing of galleries at London’s Royal Academy of Arts and a museum at Beijing’s Peking University. The family’s best known and most generous donor, Arthur M. Sackler, died nearly a decade before OxyContin was released.

The Cleveland-based judge, Dan Polster, has been pushing for a settlement since he took over the federal cases a year ago, arguing that the parties involved should find ways to end this man-made crisis, rather than hold years of trials. A court order prohibits participants from discussing most aspects of settlement talks publicly.

In its lawsuit filed last year, the Massachusetts attorney general’s office went after members of the Sackler family and Purdue, which is structured as a partnership and is not publicly traded.

The company’s flagship drug, OxyContin, was the first of a generation of drugs that used a narcotic painkiller in a time-release form. That meant each pill had a larger amount of drug in it than other versions and could get abusers a more intense high if they defeated the time-release process.

Many of the attorney general’s specific allegations — based on company documents — were blacked out at the request of Purdue and the Sackler family. The state recently filed a new version of its complaint that made public many of their allegations for the first time.

The state is asserting that Richard Sackler, a son of a company founder and at the time a senior vice president for Purdue, as well as other family members pushed selling OxyContin even when they knew it could cause problems. When the drug was first sold in 1996, the filing said, Sackler told the sales force “the launch of OxyContin Tablets will be followed by a blizzard of prescriptions that will bury the competition.”

In 2007, the company and three current and former executives pleaded guilty to criminal charges that they deceived regulators, doctors and patients about the drug’s addiction risks. The company agreed to fines of $634 million.

The next year, according to the Massachusetts lawsuit, the company pressed ahead with a new version of the drug designed to be harder for abusers to crush. It did so without first conducting trials and despite a warning from the company’s CEO that the new version “will not stop patients from the simple act of taking too many pills.”

Purdue responded to the Massachusetts filing with a strong statement: “In a rush to vilify a single manufacturer whose medicines represent less than 2 percent of opioid pain prescriptions 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.”

A spokesman for the Sackler family declined to comment separately.

Abbe Gluck, a Yale law professor who is following the federal case in Ohio, said the documents could make Purdue seem more liable or bring the Sackler family into the case in a way that presents obstacles to a settlement. But she said that might not change things for the other companies involved.

“The drug companies have an interest in settling their own claims globally,” she said.

Written by GEOFF MULVIHILL, Associated Press.

Email: [email protected]

Twitter: @STGnews

Copyright 2019 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.


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  • homer498 January 18, 2019 at 1:22 pm

    But we’ll still be able to get them right?

  • Craig January 19, 2019 at 10:08 am

    If they committed a crime, like false advertising, I suspect there is a price to pay.

    However, many of the politically correct claims about opioids are false.

  • Craig January 19, 2019 at 10:22 am

    ONGOING/CHRONIC use, usually ABUSE, of prescription opioids can lead to addiction. Though it seems, from media reports, using just a few pills is dangerous — you even need Narcan in your home — and leads to addiction, I have not seen that in practice.

    Using prescription opioids for appropriate reasons, real pain, bone fractures, post-op, etc is not dangerous. The key is using as prescribed.

    Though patients with CHRONIC pain have addiction risks, most are now managed by a physician specialist in chronic pain.

    We physicians can harm you with most any medication we use, opioids are no exception.

    Hopefully, we will not return to the days of denying proper pain management to a patient as some sort red badge of courage, though I am already hearing about this in some ERs.

    I believe the claim that we will not give you 10 or 20, or sometimes more, narcotic pain pills because you have such a high risk of addiction is bad medicine.

    Data on how and why people become addicted to opioids —

    This from the National Institute of Drug Abuse —

    “Addiction is the most severe form of an SUD (Substance Use Disorder). An SUD develops when CONTINUED MISUSE of the drug changes the brain and causes health problems and failure to meet responsibilities at work, school, or home.”

    Please notice the words CONTINUED MISUSE

    More from the National Institute of Drug Abuse — “Tolerance vs. Dependence vs. Addiction

    LONG-TERM use of prescription opioids, even as prescribed by a doctor, can cause some people to develop a tolerance, which means that they need higher and/or more frequent doses of the drug to get the desired effects.

    Drug dependence occurs with REPEATED use, causing the neurons to adapt so they only function normally in the presence of the drug. The absence of the drug causes several physiological reactions, ranging from mild in the case of caffeine, to potentially life threatening, such as with heroin. Some CHRONIC pain patients are dependent on opioids and require medical support to stop taking the drug.

    Drug addiction is a CHRONIC disease characterized by compulsive, or uncontrollable, drug seeking and use despite harmful consequences and long-lasting changes in the brain. The changes can result in harmful behaviors by those who MISUSE drugs, whether prescription or illicit drugs.”

    Please notice the words LONG-TERM, REPEATED, CHRONIC, MISUSE, ABUSE

    • Comment January 19, 2019 at 12:58 pm

      Have to agree. I’m beginning to see a trend with drug abusers. I believe their are certain characteristics among groups of people that make them very susceptible to becoming drug abusers. Whether it’s genetic or psychological factors, etc I don’t know. But I’m beginning to see that it isn’t JUST the drugs. It’s likely why relapse is so very very common. There are serious underlying factors that need to be treated. I suppose it’s what a lot of rehabs try to do.

    • homer498 January 19, 2019 at 5:41 pm

      But we’ll still be able to get them right?

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