In 2017, The New Yorker published an expose on the Sackler Family and their company, Purdue Pharma, that blew the top off of a modern American scandal. This entrepreneurial family became one of the wealthiest in America, amassing a net worth of over thirteen billion dollars in a matter of years. The key to their success has been OxyContin, an oxycodone pain medication chemically similar to morphine. Though no more effective than similar products, OxyContin became the brand leader through aggressive marketing and promotion from Purdue Pharma. As a result of this vigorous campaigning, annual prescriptions for OxyContin increased from 600,000 thousand to 6 million.
Opioid addiction has been on the rise in the United States since the 1990s when opiate prescriptions became more prevalent. One study showed 80% of opioid abusers became addicted after being prescribed an oxycodone pain medication. OyxContin and its ilk, though legal and frequently prescribed by medical professionals, are opiates like heroin and fentanyl. Many users of prescription opiates develop an addiction and turn to street drugs, like heroin. In 2017, 47,600 fatal overdoses involved opioids (nearly 68% of all overdose deaths). This crisis of opioid abuse has been termed the “opioid epidemic.”
Forty-eight states have filed lawsuits against Purdue Pharma, with some states naming members of the Sackler family individually. These cases are part of the more than 1,600 cases pending against the company and other similar drug manufacturers. After being consolidated, these cases will be transferred to the Northern District of Ohio. Plaintiffs claim that Purdue Pharma created a public health crisis by misleading both doctors and consumers about the severe risk of addiction associated with opiate use and by exaggerating its viability in long-term pain management. Evidence indicates that Purdue Pharma intentionally targeted vulnerable consumers and concealed the risks of addiction. Adding insult to injury, there is evidence that Purdue Pharma planned to profit off the opioid epidemic it created. In 2018, Purdue Pharma patented a new form of buprenorphine, a methadone-like drug intended to treat opioid addiction. Internal memos also reveal the company’s plan to invest in addiction treatment services.
One psychologist, Allen Frances of Duke University, proposes that Purdue Pharma and the Sackler family establish and fund free addiction treatment programs as recompense for their misdeeds. Oklahoma, in its settlement earlier this year, required that Purdue Pharma pledge $200 million to establish a new drug treatment center. In the future, Federal courts may consider compelling Purdue Pharma to fund drug treatment centers and educational programs nationwide. There is federal precedent for this proposition. In 1999, the Department of Justice sued the nation’s biggest tobacco companies—Altria, R.J. Reynolds, Lorillard, and Philip Morris—for actively hiding the health and addiction risks of smoking from consumers for decades. The 2006 ruling required these companies to spend millions on “corrective” advertisements, broadcasting the true dangers of smoking.
However, there is one daunting hurdle for plaintiffs seeking relief against Big Pharma. Purdue Pharma is currently considering filing for Chapter 11 bankruptcy. By filing for bankruptcy, the company can then negotiate its debts, including any legal claims, in bankruptcy court. With more suits being filed daily, and large settlements on the horizon, a bankruptcy-centered financial strategy seems likely.
Mary Jasperse is a rising 2L at Wake Forest Law. She holds a Bachelor of Arts in English literature from Queens University of Charlotte. When not in the law library, she can be found walking her dog and trying to keep her cat from knocking everything off the counter.