By Wilma Wiliams
OxyContin has been at the forefront of the opioid epidemic since day one. It is only right that this harmful drug and its manufacturers should be at the forefront of the fight to end the epidemic. Purdue Pharma has faced a wide range of lawsuits relating to OxyContin for nearly the entire production run of the drug. Finally, the weight of these legal challenges forced Purdue to file Chapter 11 Bankruptcy in September of 2019.
The Rise of the Epidemic
The first real steps towards the opioid crisis were taken in the 1980s. However, the epidemic didn’t really take hold until the mid-90s, with the introduction of OxyContin along with other powerful pain management drugs.
Concerns over the addictive potential of opioids had been around for a while. However, pharmaceutical representatives began pushing the narrative that these drugs were not as addictive as previously thought. They helped build the myth that only people using them recreationally would develop a problem, not people who used them for the treatment of pain.
Previously opioids had only been prescribed short-term for patients recovering from surgery or for people with terminal conditions. However, pharmaceutical companies began to push these medications as a way of treating chronic pain.
Medical institutions focused doctor training more around treatment with very little education on pain management.
All of these factors came into play in building the current crisis as doctors wanting to help their patients with their pain began to prescribe OxyContin and other opioids to patients for chronic pain. The doctors took the pharmaceutical reps at their word and believed they were providing their patients with a safe way to manage their pain.
On top of the risks of opioid users becoming addicted to these drugs, there is another problem with their use in managing chronic pain.
They are not very effective. Long-term opioid use leads to users building up a tolerance to the drugs requiring more and more in order to get the same effect. In fact, opioids can even make users more sensitive to pain.
Legal Troubles Begin
It was only a few years after OxyContin was introduced that the legal troubles surrounding this painkiller began. Since the turn of the millennium, Purdue Pharmaceuticals has faced dozens upon dozens of lawsuits, both from individuals and governments, in relation to their business practices surrounding this drug.
Prior to the massive number of lawsuits over the past few years, Purdue had settled other cases out of court, and in 2007 the company pled guilty to misleading the public about the risk of addiction with OxyContin use.
The company agreed to pay $600 million.
At the time, it was one of the largest pharmaceutical settlements in U.S. history.
Additionally, the company’s president, top lawyer, and the former chief medical officer also pled guilty as individuals to misbranding charges.
They paid a total of $34.5 million in fines along with a sentence of 400 hours of community service in drug treatment programs.
Fall of Purdue Pharma
In September of 2018, the mounting legal battles became too much for OxyContin’s manufacturer Purdue Pharma. The company filed for Chapter 11 Bankruptcy after reaching tentative settlement agreements with some of the plaintiffs filing claims against them.
By January of 2019, there were 36 states with open lawsuits against Purdue Pharma. The lawsuits claimed a wide range of charges against the company. State attorney generals and lawyers for the injured continued to push for justice over all of the lives lost due to Purdue’s business practices.
In November of 2020, Purdue pled guilty to three criminal charges regarding the handling of OxyContin. The felony charges that the company pled guilty to were conspiracy to defraud the United States and two violations of federal anti-kickback laws.
All of these actions were taken to boost sales of the drug with blatant disregard for public health and safety.
In addition to pleading guilty, the deal that the company struck included billions of dollars worth of penalties and the dissolution and restructuring of the company into a public benefit company.
The plea deal faces harsh criticism from many Democrats who believe that the owners of the company, the Sackler family, needs to face much harsher consequences for profiting off the death of hundreds of thousands of Americans over the last quarter-century. The deal would still leave the family among one of the richest in the world with assets in the billions of dollars.
However, the deal does not fully let the family off the hook, as the deal reserved the right of officials to prosecute any individuals involved with Purdue Pharma, including its owners.
While the company has now pled guilty to criminal charges on multiple occasions, the Sackler family has firmly denied all allegations leveled against them. They claim that they acted ethically and responsibly in all of their duties as board members of the drug manufacturer. They say they were assured that everything was above board with the company’s sales and marketing practices.
While Purdue Pharma will soon be no more, the story of the future of the U.S. opioid crisis is yet to be written. Simply taking down one company is not enough to turn the tide. A lot of money needs to be invested in drug recovery programs, and measures need to be taken to stem opioid usage.
The dissolution of Purdue is the first step in a long process to recovery. Proper justice for those who created the epidemic for personal gain and investment in programs to put an end to the crisis, along with compensation for those harmed by opioids are still needed.
About the Author
Wilma Wiliams is a law school graduate and a part-time freelance blogger, focused on various legal topics such as personal injury, and bankruptcy. She’s passionate about educating the public on fighting for their rights, which is why she’s currently collaborating with Ask LLP: Lawyers for Justice, whilst actively sharing a part of her experience as a former lawyer.