Billionaire Owners of Purdue Pharma Pushed Opioid Drug OxyContin Knowing it Could Kill
Released depositions revealed that Richard Sackler, owner of Purdue Pharma, lied to physicians about the danger of OxyContin. Now Purdue Pharma is considering declaring bankruptcy to avoid lawsuits. Tarbell.org founder Wendell Potter discusses the case
MARC STEINER: Welcome to The Real News Network. I’m Marc Steiner. Great to have you all with us.
Purdue Pharma is the maker of the opioid drug OxyContin. It’s considering bankruptcy. Doing so would protect the company from facing literally thousands of lawsuits filed against Purdue Pharma for having covered up its knowledge of just how addictive and dangerous OxyContin really is, because the company’s practices fueled the opioid overdose crisis we’re facing here in the United States. Two hundred people per day, 70,000 people per year, died as a result of the opioid overdose crisis in our country. Meanwhile, court cases in progress in Boston and Suffolk County, New York are beginning to reveal just how much the owners of Purdue Pharma knew who manufactured and sold OxyContin; how much they knew about the addictive nature of their drug, withholding vital information from physicians who would be prescribing it to all of us.
Behind all this is the billionaire family the Sackler family, who owns Purdue Pharma. According to recently revealed depositions, the Sacklers didn’t want Oxycontin to “be polluted by the bad associations that patients and healthcare givers had with morphine, or drug use for people suffering severe pain to treat cancer and for end of life patients.”
Joining me now to explore the latest developments in this case is Wendell Potter. He’s a former health insurance executive and author of several books, including Deadly Spin, Nation on the Take. He’s also founder of Tarbell.org, which is an investigative site that examines the role of money in our politics. And thanks for joining us once again here on the real news Wendell Potter. Great to have you with us.
WENDELL POTTER: Thank you, Marc. Good to be here.
MARC STEINER: So this is really phenomenally groundbreaking news. I mean, this bankruptcy case itself. Let’s just start with this case. They may file for bankruptcy. If they do file for bankruptcy, can they still be held accountable for what they’ve done? What does it mean for them to kind of–I know they faced this huge lawsuit before; $700 million, I think they lost. This could erupt around the country. It is erupting around the country. So just what does this mean if they file bankruptcy?
WENDELL POTTER: Well, it means that, for financial liability, at least, the shareholders–the family, I guess–would be protected through that filing from all the litigation that’s being filed, and undoubtedly will go forward. Whether it means that the family will escape liability is anyone’s guess. But I trust that not only will there be civil penalties or charges, but criminal charges, as well. Because, as you noted, so many people die every single day as a consequence of this epidemic that really began in companies like Purdue Pharma.
MARC STEINER: When you said they could face criminal charges–I mean, they faced criminal charges back in 2007, and they didn’t go to jail, but they had $700 million in fines levied against them because of those criminal charges that took place. If they file bankruptcy and if they’re smart business people, they probably have layers of protection between them and the company. That’s what I was thinking about. I mean, is this, does this protect them from having to pay at any level, whether it’s jail time or money? I mean, white collar criminals don’t go to jail very much in this country. Does it protect them from having to answer to what they’ve done?
WENDELL POTTER: It should not protect them. They should not have that kind of immunity. It depends on what the litigation is and actually is already filed around the country. I bet you that we will see a lot of efforts on behalf of the states, attorneys general, and others that will be continuing to look at this and potentially file charges, because it’s been very, very costly to taxpayers as well; not only to those who’ve lost people as a consequence of this epidemic, but to taxpayers, as well. And I’m hopeful that they will not ultimately escape some kind of punishment, and that the bankruptcy protection will not be a blanket protection for them to be held accountable for what they’ve done.
MARC STEINER: I mean, the depositions have revealed, really show that Sackler and the people in Purdue Pharma just really obviously and blatantly tried to hide just how addictive OxyContin is so they can sell more and make more money. And sell more–I mean, leaving it for doctors. I mean, the drug trials from 12 years ago, Purdue Pharma paid $600 million, sealed key documents. It’s all very complicated. Can you give us a sense of where the cases are at, and where they’re going, and what all that means?
WENDELL POTTER: Well, you’re right. Some of the disclosures have shown that even the highest levels of the company, even the Sackler family itself, which has tried to distance itself from any wrongdoing, that there’s evidence that’s not the case. They actually were very much involved in making sure that sales representatives from this company continue to be very aggressive, and to lie to doctors around the country, and have them tell doctors things that just simply were not true. And the doctors themselves have some culpability here by believing that. But on the other hand, they rely so heavily on drug reps from various companies to be honest. But as we’ve seen, some of the marketing practices were just outrageous. In one case–I don’t think it was the Sackler family, but another manufacturer–they were using drug reps who were ex-strippers, and who were doing lap dances for doctors. It’s just-
MARC STEINER: Whoa, whoa, whoa, whoa, whoa. That’s one I haven’t read about yet. Lap dances in doctors’ offices? With doctors?
WENDELL POTTER: Maybe not in doctors’ offices. Who knows? Maybe–that undoubtedly probably goes on as well, too. In many cases drug reps, increasingly, are women. And attractive women, because most doctors are male. It’s just unbelievable. I think we will find a lot about even those practices of drug reps that represent all kinds of drug companies and their behavior. Now, there have been some laws and regulations that have been implemented to restrict some of the practices. But yeah, least one drug rep for one of these companies is an ex-stripper, who allegedly performed a lap dance for a doctor to get that doctor to be prescribing these addictive medications.
MARC STEINER: I’m just–I’m sitting here, my mouth agape, because I’m just–that’s just so horrendously shocking. And as a son of a physician who was never a very wealthy physician, but a great doctor, I mean, that is just–it just blows my mind. Anyway.
WENDELL POTTER: It just goes to show you the level of greed at these [inaudible].
MARC STEINER: Yes.
WENDELL POTTER: Their absolute irresponsibility and lack of concern about the health and well-being of the people they presumably are making products to serve and to try to make well, when in reality it has cost so many people their lives, because these drugs were worse sold on false premises.
MARC STEINER: So I just want–the depositions that were revealed recently that actually brought this to light are pretty damning. I mean, let me just read a little bit here so we can talk a bit about what these mean before we get to our final thought here. And this came out of Vice News. Sackler said in his deposition he didn’t want OxyContin to be polluted by all the bad associations that patients had with morphine, that we talked about during the opening. And then his sales director, the head of marketing, Michael Friedman, told Sackler it would be extremely dangerous at this early stage in the life of the product to allow physicians to think the drug was as strong or stronger than morphine, since physicians already thought OxyContin, the active ingredient in their drug, was weaker. And then Friedman writes to him, “I do not plan to do anything about that.” This is according to ProPublica and Stat. And Sackler writes back, responding, “I agree with you. Is there a general agreement, or are there some holdouts?”
I mean, they literally conspired to lie to sell their drug when they knew it could be dangerous to people who were taking it. And even though most of the overdoses were from street sales, there wouldn’t be street sales if they hadn’t gone legal in the first place.
WENDELL POTTER: Exactly right. And that transcript it is evidence that they knew what was possible and how addictive these medications were, and how the strength compared to morphine, and how to market it in a certain way to doctors. And of course it became very much a street drug, and one that has led to so many people being addicted and going on to heroin and other medications, or other drugs. They knew. They absolutely knew, and were looking to obscure the reality here from doctors, and ultimately, of course, from patients.
MARC STEINER: Most of these cases are against the Sackler family and Purdue Pharma. But aren’t there many others involved that ought to be held responsible, as well? I mean, for example, the FDA approved this drug, and the [inaud.] should have known better than to prescribe it. So what about all that? I mean, this goes deeper than just the Sacklers. I mean, where was the FDA in all this? They didn’t do their job? What happened?
WENDELL POTTER: Absolutely. The whole thing here, everything around these drugs, need to be scrutinized. A good friend of mine is a physician in Vermont who works in addiction medicine. She has told me stories over the years about how aggressive the drug reps have been, and the false information that they’ve provided, or misleading information.
But you’re right. The FDA has culpability here, too. And that needs to be really reviewed very, very much, not only by regulators and members of Congress, but the media, as well, too. We’ve seen some media reports–thank goodness we have–that give us some visibility into what was going on. But the FDA really needs to be held accountable, too, for the way it allowed these drugs to be marketed.
MARC STEINER: So, you have had a lot experience in this, Wendell. I’m curious, do you think the Sacklers will be held accountable? Do you think they’re going to walk away scot-free, perhaps having to pay large fines, but that’s about it? What do you think is going to happen here?
WENDELL POTTER: Well, I fear that they may walk away from this, and not suffer much pain, if you will, and not pay for all that they’re responsible for. We see in this country even just this week how white collar criminals are largely given hardly even a slap on the wrist. And that’s been–that’s been so typical of our criminal justice system. I would trust that there would be such an uproar over this that it would send a message to judges and juries around the country just what has–what this, what these defendants, what the executives of these companies have done, and they should be accountable just as any other criminal should be. In fact, even more so when you consider all of the families, all the lives that have been ruined as a consequence of this.
MARC STEINER: 70,000 people a year dead from these overdoses in the streets. Of course, big pharma needs no controls, as many people tell us. Wendell Potter, thank you so much for joining us once again on The Real News. Always great to hear your thoughts. Talk to you soon, I hope.
WENDELL POTTER: Thank you, Marc.
MARC STEINER: Take care. And I’m Marc Steiner here for The Real News Network. Thank you for joining us. Take care.