Opioid overdoses kill more than 130 people in the U.S. daily in an unprecedented crisis that continues to spiral out of control. The pharmaceutical companies behind these drugs are now facing mounting lawsuits, as it’s become clear that they’re the ones with blood on their proverbial hands, having pushed drugs on unsuspecting pain patients while knowing they were unsafe.
From 1999 to 2017, more than 702,000 people died from a drug overdose and, in 2017, this was a leading cause of injury-related deaths in the U.S. Of the 70,000 drug-overdose deaths that occurred that year, 68% involved opioids.2
Purdue Pharma, which manufactures OxyContin, was instrumental in driving up sales of the drug to close to $2 billion a year by 2004,3 and as it became clear that people were dying as a result, they engaged in every damage-control tactic they could think of, even suggesting that the only people dying from opioids were already drug addicts.
In a major exposé by ProPublica, the lengths Purdue Pharma went to downplay OxyContin’s risks are revealed. In short, ProPublica senior reporter David Armstrong wrote, “OxyContin’s makers delayed the reckoning for their role in the opioid crisis by funding think tanks, placing friendly experts on leading outlets, and deterring or challenging negative coverage.”4
Doctor Behind Opioid Story Had Ties to Purdue Pharma
Today, the pharmaceutical industry’s contribution to the opioid epidemic is well established, with even the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services stating:5
“In the late 1990s, pharmaceutical companies reassured the medical community that patients would not become addicted to opioid pain relievers and healthcare providers began to prescribe them at greater rates.
Increased prescription of opioid medications led to widespread misuse of both prescription and non-prescription opioids before it became clear that these medications could indeed be highly addictive.”
But in 2004, doctors were being singled out for overprescribing the drugs, with criminal charges pending against major prescribers. That year, psychiatrist Sally Satel wrote an essay titled “Doctors Behind Bars: Treating Pain is Now Risky Business,” which was featured in The New York Times.6
While painting people who became addicted to painkillers as typically “a seasoned drug abuser with a previous habit involving pills, alcohol, heroin or cocaine,” Satel cited a study suggesting OxyContin was rarely the only drug involved in opioid-related deaths and described an unnamed colleague who needed to prescribe large amounts of oxycodone to help patients get out of bed.
Satel was described as a resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute, but her many ties to Purdue Pharma were noticeably absent. “Among the connections revealed by emails and documents obtained by ProPublica,” Armstrong wrote:7
” … Purdue donated $50,000 annually to the institute, which is commonly known as AEI, from 2003 through this year, plus contributions for special events, for a total of more than $800,000. The unnamed doctor in Satel’s article was an employee of Purdue, according to an unpublished draft of the story.
The study Satel cited was funded by Purdue and written by Purdue employees and consultants. And, a month before the piece was published, Satel sent a draft to Burt Rosen, Purdue’s Washington lobbyist and vice president of federal policy and legislative affairs, asking him if it ‘seems imbalanced.’”
The Opioid ‘Anti-Story’ Begins
Satel’s media portrayal of opioids as saviors to pain patients is only the tip of the iceberg of Purdue Pharma’s aggressive responses to counter criticism. Not only did Satel’s favorable writings continue, but Purdue Pharma hired notorious PR firm Dezenhall Resources, which has defended such clients as Exxon Mobil, to court Satel and further their damage control. Armstrong continued:8
“ProPublica reviewed emails to Purdue officials in which Dezenhall and his employees took credit for dissuading a national television news program from pursuing a story about OxyContin; helping to quash a documentary project on OxyContin abuse at a major cable network; forcing multiple outlets to issue corrections related to OxyContin coverage; and gaining coverage of sympathetic pain patients on a television news program and in newspaper columns.”
It was 2001 when the New York Post published an article painting pain patients who may lose access to opioids as the true victims of the opioid controversy, and Eric Dezenhall, the PR firm’s founder, emailed Purdue Pharma executives in response, writing, “The anti-story begins.”9
That same year, Richard Sackler, who was Purdue Pharma’s acting president, wrote in an email, “We have to hammer on the abusers in every way possible … They are the culprits and the problem. They are reckless criminals.”10 The Sackler family, owners of Purdue Pharma, made it onto Forbes’ Top 20 billionaires list in 201511 — in large part due to the burgeoning sales of OxyContin.
“After Purdue and Dezenhall launched their ‘anti-story,’” Armstrong wrote, “media reports of OxyContin addiction and abuse declined for several years. In 2001, there were 1,204 stories that included the words ‘OxyContin,’ ‘abuse’ and ‘Purdue’ published in media outlets archived on the Nexis database. The number plummeted to 361 in 2002 and to 150 in 2006.”12
Purdue Pharma Fined Millions — A Mere Slap on the Wrist
Purdue Pharma claimed they were unaware that Oxycontin was being abused until the 2000s, but a Justice Department report showed they knew the drug was popular with drug addicts in the late 1990s, and that they’d concealed the information.13
Despite knowing that the drugs were being crushed, snorted and stolen from pharmacies, they continued to market the drug as less addictive and less prone to abuse. DOJ prosecutors recommended that three Purdue Pharma executives be indicted on felony charges, which could have sent them to prison, but instead the case was settled.14
Further, in 2007 Purdue Pharma pleaded guilty to charges of misbranding “with intent to defraud and mislead the public” and paid $634.5 million in fines, but the fines did little to dissuade them from continuing to profit off the deadly drugs.15
More recently, a number of states and municipalities have sued Purdue Pharma over the role it played in the opioid crisis. In March 2018, the company reached a $270 million settlement with Oklahoma, about $122.5 million of which are earmarked for the funding of a drug addiction treatment center at Oklahoma State University16 that will study opioid addiction and its treatment.
As part of the deal, Purdue has also agreed to stricter limitations on how they market and sell opioids in Oklahoma.17When you consider Purdue has made an estimated $35 billion from sales of OxyContin since its release in 1996, settlements of a few hundred million dollars are still akin to a slap on the wrist. Originally, Oklahoma had sought damages in excess of $20 billion.18
Purdue Pharma Files Bankruptcy Amidst Thousands of Lawsuits
In September 2019, Purdue Pharma filed Chapter 11 bankruptcy as part of a deal to settle the more than 2,000 lawsuits it’s currently facing, alleging the company fueled the opioid epidemic by misleading doctors and patients about their drugs.19 Bankruptcy is a common tactic aimed at stemming the flow of lawsuits.
While for decades the Sacklers have been successful in largely separating their name from the deadly product that made them rich, some of the lawsuits have named individual Sacklers as defendants, but some opposed to the bankruptcy deal suggest it could still let the family off the hook. According to STAT News:20
“States that have opposed the bankruptcy deal have said that it would not extract enough from members of the Sackler family. They’ve argued that Purdue’s assets are limited because the family has absorbed the bulk of the company’s profits, and so should be on the hook for more than the deal outlines
… the New York attorney general’s office said it had uncovered $1 billion in wire transfers by the Sacklers, alleging the family was trying to hide its assets … Plaintiffs’ attorneys have likened the ongoing case to the one against the tobacco industry that culminated in a $246 billion settlement two decades ago.”
Recycling the Problem Into China
Purdue Pharma is only one pharmaceutical giant owned by the Sackler family. They also own Mundipharma, a Chinese company that’s selling OxyContin abroad, using many of the same marketing tactics Purdue Pharma is now being accused of.
In 1995, when Purdue Pharma received U.S. FDA approval for extended-release oxycodone (OxyContin) for the management of moderate to severe pain, it was promoted as being nonaddictive and safe for long-term use, unlike other opioids on the market.
Unfortunately, the idea that extended-release Oxycontin, which didn’t lead to the immediate high drug abusers were presumably looking for, was less addictive was not based on real evidence. Meanwhile, in China, present-day sales reps for Mundipharma are repeating the same deadly story.
“In conversations with the AP more than a decade later, three current and former sales reps in China made the same misleading pitch, which was repeated in training and marketing materials used by Mundipharma staff,” STAT News reported, adding:21
“‘Immediate-release morphine and Dolantin are more addictive,’ a current employee recently told AP on condition of anonymity for fear of losing her job. OxyContin, which enters the blood slowly, she explained, ‘doesn’t resemble immediate-release morphine, rising and falling with these frequent peaks and troughs that cause a euphoric feeling.’
‘I’m shocked,’ she said, after AP showed her documents from the U.S. legal case and 2016 guidelines from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control that say there is no evidence long-acting opioids reduce risks of abuse. ‘Why after more than ten years would they still do the same thing and go against the laws and regulations of society?’ she said.”
Mundipharma’s sales reps have also violated Chinese law by copying patients’ private medical records to better target sales and have even worn white doctors’ coats to make visits with hospital patients, as well as offered doctors paid speaking jobs and gifts.
Mundipharma is also actively working to combat “opiophobia” in doctors, which is reportedly the “mistaken” belief that opioid painkillers are highly addictive and should be used sparingly.22 While in the U.S. Purdue Pharma has stopped marketing OxyContin to doctors, in China Mundipharma is hoping OxyContin sales “surpass those in the U.S. by 2025.”23
Anyone Can Become Addicted to Opioids
Purdue Pharma’s attempts to blame the opioid crisis on addicts have ultimately failed, and it’s now widely known that even when taken as directed, prescription opioids can lead to addiction as well as tolerance, which means you need an increasingly stronger dose to get the pain-relieving effects.
Physical dependence, in which you suffer withdrawal symptoms if you stop taking the drugs, can also result along with other issues like increased sensitivity to pain, depression, low levels of testosterone and more.24
“Anyone who takes prescription opioids can become addicted to them. In fact, as many as 1 in 4 patients receiving long-term opioid therapy in a primary care setting struggles with opioid addiction. Once addicted, it can be hard to stop,” the CDC notes.25
Money is still being made by opioid makers even as people are dying as a result. The motivation to sell more of these drugs is not one of altruism but greed. If you’re in need of pain relief, consider natural options first and be aware that opioids are not always necessary to treat even moderate to severe pain, as ibuprofen and acetaminophen (which do have their own set of risks) may work just as well.26
Article originally appeared at Mercola.