Day 6

Proposed multi-billion dollar settlement could signal a reckoning for maker of OxyContin

OxyContin was supposed to revolutionize pain management. Instead, it is being blamed for a global health crisis. Now, after years of fighting lawsuit after lawsuit, Purdue Pharma is looking to make a deal.

'One could say the chickens are coming home to roost,' says journalist Barry Meier

Purdue Pharma could pay up to $12 billion US to settle lawsuits that claim it knew about OxyContin's addictive nature. (Toby Talbot/The Associated Press)

With an Oklahoma court finding pharmaceutical giant Johnson & Johnson responsible for fuelling opioid addictions in that state — and reports that OxyContin manufacturer Purdue Pharma will pay up to $12 billion US to settle outstanding court cases — the opioid crisis is at a tipping point, says journalist Barry Meier.

"It's a moment where, I guess, one could say the chickens are coming home to roost — or that a massive industry is finally facing responsibility for its actions in the past," Meier, author of Pain Killer: An Empire of Deceit and the Origin of America's Opioid Epidemic, told Day 6 guest host Saroja Coelho.

On Monday, judge Thad Balkman ordered Johnson & Johnson to pay $572-million to help address the problem. State Attorney General Mike Hunter called the decision a "road map" for other jurisdictions to follow.

Before reporting on opioids, Meier followed the tobacco industry through a series of lawsuits in the 1990s. He says that the Johnson & Johnson ruling could play a significant role in holding companies accountable.

"In the late 1990s, as states started suing them [tobacco companies], it all began to unravel, and I think we're seeing something very similar happening here with both Purdue Pharma and the opioid industry in general," he said.

Below is part of that conversation. 

A sign with the Sackler name is displayed at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, Thursday, Jan. 17, 2019. The Sackler name adorns walls at some of the world's top museums and universities, including the Met, the Guggenheim and Harvard. (Seth Wenig/Associated Press)

If we go back to beginning of this health crisis, it begins with the introduction of OxyContin and the Sackler family. Perhaps you could begin there. Can you tell me who they are?

The Sackler family is one of the wealthiest, the most secretive families in the United States.

Most people know them, if they know them at all, from their names on museums. Museums like the Metropolitan Museum, the Whitney Museum [and] museums throughout Europe.

But they were also major players within the pharmaceutical industry.

In what way?

There were three brothers originally: Arthur, Mortimer and Raymond Sackler.

Arthur Sackler is sort of a pivotal figure in the history of the pharmaceutical industry because he essentially developed the whole advertising of prescription drugs, first to doctors and then eventually to the public.

Both he and his two younger brothers started the company that eventually became Purdue Pharma. Originally it was known as Purdue Frederick.

Can you give us a sense of the sort of success they had on the market?

They had a massive success. When Purdue Pharma began selling OxyContin back in the mid-1990s, they totally revolutionized how people thought about the use of powerful opioids or drugs that were actually known as narcotics.

Previously these drugs had been used largely, at least the strongest ones like OxyContin ... to treat cancer pain; end of life pain.

But they basically began to market them for the use in all kinds of pain — arthritis, injuries, dental pain — promoting them as, really, non-addictive alternatives to other drugs.

According to documents uncovered by Meier, Purdue Pharma and the Sackler family were aware that OxyContin was addictive despite marketing to the contrary. (Jessica Hill/The Associated Press)

How did the Sacklers convince the public that Oxy wasn't as addictive as other painkillers?

They marketed it that way. I mean the Sacklers, per se, didn't but Purdue Pharma in its marketing to the public and to doctors claim that because it was a long-acting drug, it was different than the traditional painkillers that were on the market.

Because it had a long-acting formulation, it would be less likely to kind of produce an immediate high, which was the type of high that people that abused prescription painkillers wanted.

And that's the way they marketed it and they illegally marketed that way to doctors and plead guilty to criminally doing so in 2007.

How did they manage to do that for so long? As an original argument, you can see how people might have gone along with that, but there was mounting evidence that this was simply not the case; that the drug was highly addictive.

They contended, back when I started covering the story in 2000 and even into 2001 ... the addiction and overdose deaths related to OxyContin were being manufactured by the news media.

That reporters, like myself, were kind of making this all up and inflating it and making claims that weren't statistically, or factually, true, when in fact the entire foundation of how this company began marketing OxyContin — back in 1996 and 1997 — was fraudulent and they eventually acknowledged that.

We have to see whether the settlement does go through. If it does go through, basically [the Sacklers] have used their fortune to protect the rest of their fortune and will go on with their lives as they see fit.- Barry Meier, journalist

You've spoken a number of times here about the marketing strategy and they amassed an enormous fortune. Can you give us a sense of how much money they managed to make from this drug and its marketing?

Apparently since the introduction of OxyContin in 1996, there were about $35 billion ... worth of sales.

And the Sackler family fortune, I believe it was estimated by Forbes magazine as approaching about $13 billion.

If we look at their involvement in Purdue Pharma, some of what we've been told is that they took a back seat; they tried to present themselves as not being involved every day. But how involved were the Sacklers with Purdue Pharma?

One of the more interesting things about the current wave of litigation, and the types of documents that are starting to emerge now, is that we're really getting the first glimpse at how deeply involved, apparently, members of the Sackler family were in this company.

They were successful in building a wall around them and creating what may prove to be a mirage about their lack of involvement. But, in fact, this family owned Purdue Pharma, the executives of the company reported to the Sackler family.

So in any closely-held, privately-run company, as Purdue Pharma is, surely the owners — the Sackler family — are the ones who are likely going to be calling the shots.

According to Meier, the reality of OxyContin's dangers didn't reach public consciousness — and lawmakers' attention — until users began overdosing on Fentanyl, a more potent drug sometimes sold as oxycodone. (DEA via Associated Press)

You got your hands on a couple of sets of documents over the years. What did they reveal?

These were pretty extraordinary documents, I wrote about them in Pain Killer, the newest edition.

And what they showed was that number one, federal prosecutors had developed evidence back in the mid-2000s showing what they believed to be true which is, number one, that Purdue Pharma was aware of the growing and widespread abuse of OxyContin long before the company acknowledged it.

And number two, that on certain occasions, executives of the company made members of the Sackler family aware of the abuse of company drugs.

And now they're about to pay approximately $3 billion US and that's from the family purse. They're also going to give up their stake in a company. What was the turning point?

I was thinking about that and there is a famous fighter by the name of Roberto Durán who, during one of his pivotal fights, held up his hands in front of his face and said "no mas" or "no more".

And I think at this juncture, the Sackler family — the ones who were involved in running Purdue Pharma — have reached a point where the consequences of the potential liabilities that they face going forward outweigh the benefits that they have in saying, well, we're going to fight this thing and they basically are trying to say "no mas".

What happens to the Sacklers now after these cases are settled? Are they free from the entire case now that the settlement is looking like it will go through?

First of all, we have to see whether the settlement does go through. If it does go through, basically they have used their fortune to protect the rest of their fortune and will go on with their lives as they see fit.

This Q&A has been edited for length and clarity.


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