Hours after Purdue Pharma agreed to pay a $270 million settlement to the state of Oklahoma in a lawsuit that accuses the company of fueling a nationwide opioid crisis, a family that has profited immensely from this epidemic sent a sternly worded warning to HuffPost.
An attorney at Farrer & Co., the high-powered U.K. law firm that also represents the British royal family, emailed a “legal warning notice” to HuffPost on behalf of the British and American descendants of the late Mortimer Sackler, members of the family that owns the scandal-plagued drug company. British libel laws are stricter than those in the U.S., exposing reporters to a higher risk of lawsuits.
In his letter, attorney Julian Pike set forth guidelines on how he believes newsrooms should cover the mounting lawsuits against Purdue, which is based in Stamford, Connecticut.
“The public interest is in fact undermined and ill-served when the reporting on the subject is false, distorted and/or misleading,” Pike said, alleging “substantial amounts of coverage which has contained significant misleading or inaccurate claims” about the lawsuits and the epidemic more broadly.
The letter was sent in an email warning that the contents are “STRICTLY PRIVATE & CONFIDENTIAL / NOT FOR PUBLICATION,” but HuffPost did not agree to withhold it and is under no legal obligation to refrain from publishing under these circumstances.
Purdue and other opioid manufacturers have been the target of roughly 2,000 lawsuits filed in federal and state courts that accuse the drug companies of fueling a nationwide crisis that is killing tens of thousands of Americans every year and contributing to a decline in U.S. life expectancy.
Pike noted that the Sackler family was not named in the Oklahoma suit, which Oklahoma Attorney General Mike Hunter filed in 2017. However, the family has been directly named in a number of other lawsuits across the country.
In 1996, Purdue introduced OxyContin, a painkiller packed with more highly addictive oxycodone than competing products. Abusers often crush the pill to allow them to snort or inject it. People who are addicted to the narcotic frequently turn to heroin after building a tolerance to the pill or to have a cheaper way to obtain the drug’s effects.
Since OxyContin’s debut, roughly 400,000 people in the U.S. have died of overdoses involving any opioid, including heroin and prescription painkillers such as OxyContin, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
In the letter to HuffPost this week, the Sacklers seemed to wipe their hands clean of any role in the epidemic, contending OxyContin is “safe and effective for its intended uses” since it has been approved by the Food and Drug Administration and the painkiller’s label carries an “appropriate warning” about its effects.
“It is for healthcare providers to make decisions about whether OxyContin or any other drug is appropriate for an individual patient,” the letter stated.
But recently revealed court documents show how Purdue and the Sacklers misled health care providers about the drug’s euphoric effects and highly addictive qualities.
It is for healthcare providers to make decisions about whether OxyContin or any other drug is appropriate for an individual patient.
Letter from Farrer & Co. law firm
Purdue pleaded guilty in 2007 to federal charges of illegally misbranding OxyContin by failing to alert doctors that it was stronger than morphine. The company was forced to pay $600 million in fines and penalties.
A 19-page statement of facts Purdue submitted as part of its 2007 plea deal admitted company supervisors and employees had marketed OxyContin to physicians “with the intent to defraud or mislead,” promoting the painkiller as “less addictive, less subject to abuse and diversion, and less likely to cause tolerance and withdrawal than other pain medications.”
Richard Sackler’s father, Raymond, bought Purdue in 1952 with his brothers Mortimer and Arthur (though Arthur acted as a passive partner). The three brothers have since died, leaving principal ownership of the company to descendants.
The family is now one of the wealthiest in the country, largely due to Purdue’s successful marketing of drugs like OxyContin, but they have long sought to publicly distance themselves from the inner workings of the company. Yet a 2015 deposition of Richard Sackler as part of a lawsuit by the state of Kentucky against Purdue Pharma and published last month by ProPublica shows members of the Sackler family personally directed efforts to mislead the public about OxyContin.
A 1997 email exchange between Richard Sackler and Michael Friedman, Purdue’s marketing chief at the time, outlined the company’s efforts to understate the product’s effects in marketing it to physicians.
Richard Sackler downplayed his apparent efforts to mislead in an August 2015 deposition as simply trying to prevent OxyContin from being “polluted by all of the bad associations that patients and healthcare givers had with morphine.”
All the while, the Sacklers were making billions off of Americans’ suffering. By 2006, OxyContin’s “profit contribution” to Purdue was $4.7 billion, according to a document read at the same deposition.
The Sackler family insists Purdue Pharma’s settlement with Oklahoma earlier this week “does not amount to an acceptance of responsibility by the family for the opioid crisis in the U.S., nor is it expressly or impliedly an admission of any wrong-doing on their part.” (In addition to OxyContin, Purdue also manufactures two other FDA-approved prescription opioids: Butrans and Hysingla ER.)
Their letter warned that they “had cause to write to the BBC” about a “highly misleading” interview one of its radio shows conducted with Nan Goldin, an American photographer and activist. Goldin, who has struggled personally with opioid addiction, has led the call for museums and other institutions to stop accepting money from The Sackler Trust, the family’s charitable foundation. The trust announced earlier this week that it planned to temporarily pause philanthropic donations amid the ongoing litigation.
The Sacklers accused the BBC of providing “an individual with an obvious agenda unfettered air time without any counter balance and impartiality.”
“We would wish that the reporting on the U.S. Litigation and the opioid crisis more generally will more accurately reflect the facts and that pejorative language and exaggerated claims will be avoided,” their letter urged.
Meanwhile, Richard Sackler has a proclivity for using “pejorative language” in describing the people who become addicted to his company’s products. Internal documents that were part of a complaint filed by the state of Massachusetts earlier this year include a 2001 email he wrote as president of the company about the need to “hammer on abusers in every way possible.”
“They are the culprits and the problem,” he wrote. “They are reckless criminals.”
Thousands of American lives have been shattered by drugs like OxyContin. Efforts to blame patients who have become addicted and to silence the media’s reporting on the crisis appear to be failing strategies.