Federal prosecutors filed criminal charges against a major drug distributor and two of its former executives in 2019, a new tactic that for the first time exposes wholesalers of legal painkillers to potential prison sentences for their roles in the nation’s opioid epidemic.
More Indictments are expected. Rochester Drug Cooperative, and the executives were charged with three crimes in April 2019. Including conspiracy to distribute controlled narcotics for non medical reasons. The two men could face 10 years to life in prison on that charge.
The opioid crisis has ravaged through the U.S., taking hundreds of thousands of lives and costing the country an estimated $37 billion.
Nearly 400,000 people died from an opioid overdose between 1999 and 2017, according to the Centers for Disease Control (CDC), and the number of overdose deaths tied to opioids was six times higher in 2017 than it was eight years prior. An average of 130 Americans died every day of an opioid overdose in 2017, according to CDC data.
Much of the blame has been placed on pharmaceutical giants for aggressive marketing of prescription opioids and the FDA for lack of regulation. And certain companies made big money off the opioid boom — perhaps most notably OxyContin-maker Purdue Pharma.
Purchased by Dr. Raymond Sackler and his brother Mortimer Sackler in 1952, the company that would become Purdue Pharma started as a NYC-based pharmaceutical firm and evolved into a family-owned behemoth over the next few decades. The company’s big break came in 1995 when the FDA approved its drug OxyContin, first formulation of oxycodone with dosing every 12 hours instead of every 4 to 6 hours.
Oxycodone, the drug created by Purdue Pharma and commonly called OxyContin.
Dr. Richard Sackler, Raymond’s son and a Purdue Pharma board member, told a 1996 OxyContin launch party to “imagine a series of natural disasters: an earthquake, a volcanic eruption, a hurricane, and a blizzard,” according to the New York State Attorney’s lawsuit against Purdue Pharma.
“He said: ‘the launch of OxyContin Tablets will be followed by a blizzard of prescriptions that will bury the competition. The prescription blizzard will be so deep, dense, and white…’”
Over the next two decades, that prescription blizzard coincided with a growing U.S. opioid epidemic.
A spokesman for the Sackler family confirmed that Richard Sackler made the “blizzard of prescriptions” speech and said Sackler “was making a speech that was sort of tongue in cheek” referencing a blizzard that had shut down New York City airports.
“Dr. Sackler used this much-quoted phrase in a speech given at the launch of OxyContin because the airports were closed following the historic blizzard of 1996, and he was a day late to the meeting as a result,” David Bernick, an attorney for the Sackler family, said in a statement to Yahoo Finance, adding: “The enthusiasm of Dr. Sackler’s speech also was totally understandable” given the recent FDA approval of the new drug.
‘Purdue Pharma vigorously denies the allegations’
After pleading guilty to criminal charges in 2007, the Sackler dynasty’s company is now being taken to court in civil cases across the country.
In March, Purdue Pharma reached a $270 million settlement with the state of Oklahoma — and that was just the beginning.
As of June 12, 48 states and D.C. filed lawsuits against the company. The Texas lawsuit was blunt:
“Simply stated, Purdue took advantage of addiction to make money.”
“Purdue Pharma vigorously denies the allegations contained in litigation against the company and will continue to defend itself against these misleading attacks,” the Purdue statement added. “These sensationalized claims are part of a continuing effort to try these cases in the court of public opinion rather than the justice system…
“The recent decision by the North Dakota Court to dismiss all the claims filed by the Attorney General of North Dakota against Purdue is a significant legal victory for the Company that has potential far-reaching ramifications for both the state lawsuits and the claims pending in the multi-district litigation (MDL).”
The New York lawsuit alleges that seven members of the Sackler family, along with four entities and the other defendants, were “entrusted under New York law with critical roles in preventing the misuse and diversion of controlled substances [and] deliberately betrayed those duties through a persistent course of fraudulent and illegal misconduct, in order to profiteer from the plague they knew would be unleashed.”
The suit further alleges that “since 1999, the scourge of opioid addiction unleashed by the Defendants in this action has taken nearly 400,000 lives.”
The Texas Attorney General’s Office says Purdue Pharma fueled “the nation’s opioid epidemic by deceptively marketing prescription painkillers,” including OxyContin.
Texas has not been in the national spotlight over the opioid crisis like Kentucky, Maine, Ohio and West Virginia, but 1,375 Texans died from opioids in 2016. In addition, public health advocates have expressed fear that things will get worse in Texas due to lack of access to substance abuse treatment, particularly in rural counties. Four of the top cities for opioid abuse are in Texas: Texarkana, Odessa, Longview and Amarillo.
Paxton’s office wrote in a 2018 letter to the Texas Supreme Court that it planned to file a lawsuit under the state’s Deceptive Trade Practices Act. The consumer protection statute forbids companies from misrepresenting themselves or their products to Texans. Examples of misrepresentation include false or misleading advertising, exaggerating or misrepresenting the benefits or endorsements of a product or service, making false statements about the manufacture or origin of a product, passing off used products as new ones and price gouging.
Paxton said he’s leading Texas to sue Purdue for several reasons including for lying to doctors and patients about the possibility of increasing opioid dosages without risk, falsely representing that common signs of addiction are signs the patient needs higher opioid dosages and misrepresenting the risk of becoming addicted to the company’s abuse-deterrent formulation OxyContin.
Beyond holding the company accountable, Paxton went personal during the press conference when he talked about hearing stories of families “losing sons and daughters” to addiction.