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A spate of news stories in mid-December 2019 filled in many of the remaining gaps in the story of who drove and financially benefited from pushing addiction to the powerful opioid painkiller OxyContin.

Details of how members of the Sackler family, owners of the drug maker Purdue Pharma, downplayed risks from their brand of oxycodone while also encouraging irresponsible prescribing have been known since as early as the late 1990s. Eventually, enough information became available to allow states, local governments and groups of families grieving loved ones lost to opioid overdoses to secure multimillion-dollar settlements against Purdue Pharma.

The new reporting, however, drags into full public view how the Sacklers avoided the full financial consequences of their deliberately harmful actions and the family members’ intention to continue raking in billions in personal profits from recklessly marketing a potentially deadly product.


Thanks to reporting like this from the Associated Press on Dec. 16, 2019, we know that shortly after being fined by the U.S. government in 2007 for deceptive marketing of OxyContin, “Purdue made payments for the benefit of members of the Sackler family … totaling $10.7 billion from 2008 through 2017.” Of that amount, Sacklers retained $1.3 billion after taxes and other deductions such as payments to affiliated corporations.

The Washington Post added this detail: “One set of overseas cash transfers of $312 million came in 2017, the same year states and counties began filing lawsuits against the company, accusing it of stoking America’s opioid epidemic with misleading marketing.” That particular payment was later treated as a loan and was reportedly paid back to the company.

In 2007, regulators specifically penalized the Purdue for claiming that OxyContin users were less like to become addicted and overdose than were users of other prescription opioid painkillers. Over the next decade, however, the company and its owners continued touting the alleged safety of the product. Those were also the years when opioid overdoses overtook traffic accidents as a leading cause of preventable death in the United States.

Finally, in 2017, Mississippi-based attorney Mike Moore applied lessons he learned while leading litigation to hold cigarette manufacturers responsible for paying state’s smoking-related health care costs to pursuing similar claims against Purdue Pharma. Several plaintiffs’ attorneys quickly followed his example, and the company eventually started proposing settlements with states, cities and counties.

Purdue Pharma declared bankruptcy in the fall of 2018 as part of its plan to settle all these hundreds of dangerous product and wrongful death lawsuits. Not all plaintiffs have welcomed the opportunity to accept payments in return for dropping their current and possible future claims. One big objection is that the company has no intention of halting its aggressive sales of OxyContin.

As noted by the attorney general for the Commonwealth of Massachusetts on the Dec. 17, 2019 PBS Newshour, Purdue Pharma has increased its marketing of OxyContin in Asia and Africa. The company has also ensured that no Sacklers will need to pay personally into the settlement fund and that profits from future sales will be channeled into settlement payments.

Powerful prescription painkillers may have legitimate medical uses, especially for palliative and end-of-life care. Nothing seems acceptable about what Purdue Pharma and the Sacklers did and continue doing, however. At a minimum, any settlements in OxyContin lawsuits must cost the family money it took in exchange for patients’ lives and well-being.


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