The painkiller OxyContin has played an outsized role in the opioid crisis, which has killed at least 470,000 people since 2000. Originally intended as a drug for severe pain, OxyContin was prescribed widely for moderate pain, exposing millions to the risk of addiction and overdose.
While many factors may have contributed to the opioid crisis, many consider drug makers to have played a key role. Some allegedly misrepresented the risk of addiction when using their products. Some are said to have actively encouraged doctors to massively increase the prescriptions they wrote. Some made false reports to government agencies.
The manufacturer of OxyContin, Purdue Pharma, recently agreed to plead guilty, as a company, to three criminal charges, including conspiracy, defrauding the United states and violating federal anti-kickback laws. Besides the guilty pleas, the company agreed to a penalty of over $8 billion.
The company’s founders, the wealthy Sackler family, has been heavily criticized for allowing Purdue to vastly increase OxyContin prescriptions to where it should have been obvious over-prescribing was taking place. At one point, there were enough opioid prescriptions written each year in the U.S. to cover half the population.
This plea and settlement agreement does not apply directly to the Sackler family, although they will lose control of the company. However, neither does the settlement release the Sacklers from criminal liability.
The Sackler family has said that it acted “ethically and lawfully” when promoting OxyContin.
Purdue Pharma itself has admitted to several counts of criminal misconduct, including:
- Impeding the Drug Enforcement Administration by falsely claiming to have an effective drug diversion detection and reporting program in place and by making misleading reports to the agency to increase Purdue’s manufacturing quotas.
- Violating federal anti-kickback laws by recruiting doctors to a paid speaking program to induce them to write more prescriptions for OxyContin and other opioids, and by using electronic health record software to influence doctors to prescribe their drugs.
- “Knowingly and intentionally” conspiring to aid and abet the dispensing of medication “without a legitimate medical purpose and outside the usual course of professional practice.”
Is the punishment enough?
Purdue will forfeit $2 billion and pay a $3.54-billion criminal fine, along with making a direct payment of $225 million to the government. It has also agreed to pay $2.8 billion in civil damages. Some of the money will go toward medication-assisted opioid addiction treatment and other programs to fight the opioid epidemic.
However, Purdue is in the bankruptcy process and may not ultimately pay the full amount.
Some victims and attorneys general criticized the settlement and plea as a “mere mirage” of justice.