Big Pharma Bailed Again

Salvatore Iovino, Opinions Co-Editor

Since 1996, Purdue Pharmaceuticals has been a giant within the pharmaceutical industry – the same year the company debuted the now commonly known painkiller oxycontin.  As soon as it hit the market, oxycontin was relentlessly marketed nationwide to medical offices everywhere as a newer, more effective version of then-existing painkillers.  Purdue drew in $48 million in revenue from oxycontin’s first year of sales; by 2000, that revenue had risen to just under $1.1 billion.  Owing to both its effectiveness and highly addictive attributes, the drug became the painkiller for post-operation pain.

Over the next two decades since its inception, oxycontin was only marketed with increasing intensity towards medical offices.  Oxycontin’s popularity reached unprecedented levels, and was making more money for the Sackler family, the owners of Perdue Pharmaceuticals, than anyone could have ever imagined – anyone besides the family itself, that is.  Oxycontin is a highly addictive substance, yet its early distribution gave no impression this was the case.  Its addictive properties led to it being requested by patients long after their symptoms of pain had gone away; to the knowledge of doctors, of course, these were patients who needed genuine treatment, so prescriptions continued to be filled.  Meanwhile Purdue gladly continued to produce and funnel excess amounts to these doctors, who primarily operated in areas where substance abuse was already prominent, increasing their net sales from those suffering from addiction to their painkillers.  This culminated in multiple lawsuits beginning in 2007, in which the federal government accused Perdue of being dishonest about the effects of oxycontin, to which Purdue paid out a $600 million dollar fee in a settlement agreement.  In 2015, however, Purdue once again came under fire, this time by the states of Kentucky, Oklahoma, and others in which they faced similar accusations, eventually paying out lawsuits to the tune of $24 and $270 million respectively.

After their last suit was settled in 2015, Purdue continued to come under fire for their contribution to the opioid crisis throughout the next 6 years.  However, on Wednesday Purdue Pharmaceuticals won approval of a $4.5 billion bankruptcy agreement in the U.S. bankruptcy court in New York.  This agreement protects the Sackler family from further lawsuits from both state legislatures and the federal government regarding their involvement in the opioid crisis as well as a series of other offenses.  This ruling can and should be appealed, however, by both state and federal legislatures, and any state that was harmed by this should actively pursue the Sackler family for all they’re worth.

All told, the Sacklers have collected over $10 billion in the period from 2008 to 2017 alone, rendering the $4.5 billion they are paying under the terms of this current settlement a pittance compared with the amount of damage they have caused over the past two and a half decades.  Millions of lives have been claimed by the opioid epidemic, and though the political incentives of campaign funding and other forms of payment are obviously strong with a company such as Purdue, the government cannot let them off with what is essentially a stern lecture and “slap on the wrist.”  Trying to repurpose the company into a “public benefit company” is functionally useless and completely antithetical to what the company has represented for the past two and a half decades. 

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