February 21, 2019; STAT News
ProPublica and STAT News are reporting that within a year of releasing OxyContin into the market, Michael Friedman, Purdue Pharmaceuticals’ head of sales and marketing, had the following exchange seeking clarification from Dr. Richard Sackler, a key member of the family who founded the company.
“It would be extremely dangerous at this early stage in the life of the product,” Friedman wrote to Sackler, “to make physicians think the drug is stronger or equal to morphine.…We are well aware of the view held by many physicians that oxycodone [the active ingredient in OxyContin] is weaker than morphine. I do not plan to do anything about that.”
“I agree with you,” Sackler responded. “Is there a general agreement, or are there some holdouts?”
This interaction, which shows that Purdue intentionally misrepresented the drug’s strength to doctors, probably in an effort to get them to overprescribe it, is found in a deposition of Sackler from August 28, 2015, taken as a part of a lawsuit brought by the state of Kentucky. That case was settled in 2015 for $24 million—a pittance for the company, which even by 2006 had made $4.7 billion in profits from the drug. By 2017, the Sackler family had pocketed $4 billion from the company.
Purdue has fought hard for three years to keep the documents associated with the case under wraps, out of reach of those bringing scores of other lawsuits even as they have fought hard to access them. But it will also undoubtedly intensify the many protests at those institutions that have taken hefty donations from the Sacklers—see here and here.
The deposition places the family’s philanthropy in the proper light, which is that the hundreds of millions of so-called charitable dollars the family has given to elite art and educational institutions to bolster its social position were derived from an intentional, aggressive campaign to encourage doctors to overprescribe oxycontin, thus creating addictions that laid scourge to many communities and ruined the lives of tens of thousands over the past 13 years.
The company, which said it was also speaking on behalf of Sackler, deplored what it called the “intentional leak of the deposition” to ProPublica, calling it “a clear violation of the court’s order” and “regrettable.”
Much of the questioning of Sackler in the 337-page deposition focused on Purdue’s marketing of OxyContin, especially in the first five years after the drug’s 1996 launch. Aggressive marketing of OxyContin is blamed by some analysts for fostering a national crisis that has resulted in 200,000 overdose deaths related to prescription opioids since 1999.
In 1999, Sackler wrote to a Purdue executive, “You won’t believe how committed I am to make OxyContin a huge success. It is almost that I dedicated my life to it. After the initial launch phase, I will have to catch up with my private life again.”
For those who will struggle for the rest of their lives with their own or a loved one’s addiction, catching back up with one’s life might not be quite so easy.—Ruth McCambridge