New York sues Sackler family, Purdue’s marketing of OxyContin.
New York state has sued the billionaire Sackler family behind Purdue Pharma and its prescription painkiller OxyContin, joining a growing list of state, county and city governments alleging the drugmaker Purdue and its owners sparked the nation’s opioids crisis by putting profits over patient safety.
The announcement on Thursday by the state attorney general was the latest development in a tumultuous two weeks for Purdue Pharma, the Connecticut-based maker of OxyContin, and the leading members of the Sackler family that wholly own the private company.
Purdue and the Sacklers settled a case in Oklahoma earlier this week before it was due to come to trial in late May – with $75m contributed by the Sacklers as part of the $270m settlement even though they were not named personally in the suit there.
It was also the first time, after months of intensifying criticism and protests, and a piling up of lawsuits, that the Sacklers had directly contributed toward addressing the consequences of the opioid epidemic, after negotiating with the Oklahoma attorney general.
The Sacklers said their $75m payment was a “voluntary pledge” to establish an addiction and treatment centre in Oklahoma and did not amount to an admission of culpability.
Just days earlier, one of the wealthy Sackler charitable foundations said it was suspending its donations to the arts, amid the furore, following announcements the previous week that the National Portrait Gallery and the Tate Modern art museums in London and the Guggenheim museum in New York were, at least for the time being, eschewing future Sackler gifts, having benefited from largesse before.
New York state, which averages nine opioid-related deaths a day, amended an existing lawsuit against pill maker Purdue Pharma to add members of its controlling Sackler family as defendants. The state also added five other companies that produce opioid painkillers and four distributors as defendants.
The lawsuit seeks penalties and damages that could add up to tens of millions of dollars and a dedicated fund to curb the opioid epidemic. It also seeks to have the companies stripped of their licenses and barred from marketing and distributing painkillers in New York until they abide by strict safeguards.
The companies, the lawsuit said, deliberately betrayed their duties under state drug laws “in order to profiteer from the plague they knew would be unleashed”. The lawsuit described the opioid epidemic as a “statewide catastrophe”.
New York’s lawsuit echoes the other cases, alleging that eight leading members of the Sackler family and Purdue were engaged in a strategy of aggressive marketing of OxyContin, while downplaying the dangers of the pill, which can be more potent than heroin or morphine, beginning in the mid-1990s. The strategy led to massive overprescribing and a scourge of dependency, addiction and death. Once the pills ran out, the lawsuit alleges, often as health professionals scaled back on prescriptions after noting the patients were becoming addicted, many patients, desperately craving the same effects, turned to cheaper available alternatives such as black market heroin and fentanyl.
New York’s lawsuit accuses drug manufacturers of collaborating to falsely deny the serious risks of opioid addiction. It accuses drug distributors of saturating the state with opioids while lacking adequate compliance systems to spot potential red flags. Both groups are accused of lying to state regulators. Purdue and the Sacklers deny the allegations against them.
Echoing evidence first made public in a case against Purdue and the Sacklers brought by the attorney general of Massachusetts, Thursday’s lawsuit in New York revealed that leading family member Richard Sackler, then the senior vice-president of Purdue responsible for sales, proudly told the audience at an OxyContin launch party in 1996 that the drug and the company’s strategy would be so successful it would create a “blizzard of prescriptions that will bury the competition”, the lawsuit said.
Thursday’s lawsuit highlighted the death of one New York woman: Saige Earley, who was found dead last September in a bathroom stall at the Syracuse airport with a needle in her arm and a boarding pass for a flight to drug rehab in her hand. Earley, 23, had turned to heroin after getting hooked on painkillers when she had her wisdom teeth extracted.
The other defendants in New York’s lawsuit are: Johnson & Johnson and Janssen Pharmaceuticals; UK-based Mallinckrodt plc, which has an opioid manufacturing plant in Hobart, New York; Dublin-based Endo and Allergan; Israeli pharmaceutical company Teva and the drug distributors McKesson, AmerisourceBergen, Cardinal Health and Rochester Drug Cooperative Inc.