One of America's richest families is accused of profiting from the nation's opioid crisis
Posted January 28, 2019 11:10 p.m. EST
CNN — A court ruling Monday in Massachusetts will expose details about one of America's richest families and their connection to the nation's opioid crisis.
The Sacklers and members of their company Purdue Pharma have been named in a lawsuit that accuses them of profiting from the opioid crisis by aggressively marketing OxyContin, claims denied by attorneys for the family and Purdue.
The suit had been heavily redacted, but on Monday, Suffolk County Superior Court Judge Janet Sanders ruled that the unredacted amended complaint must be publicly released by February 1.
In the order, Sanders calls the defense's protests "hardly compelling" enough to keep the information secret, adding that it is not intensely personal or private.
The redacted pages "appear to be discussions of tactics that could be used to promote the sales of OxyContin (particularly in higher doses), to encourage doctors to prescribe the drug over longer periods of time, and to circumvent safeguards put in place to stop illegal prescriptions," Sanders says in the court filing.
"For many years, Purdue, its executives, and members of the Sackler family have tried to shift the blame and hide their role in creating the opioid epidemic. We are grateful to the court for lifting the impoundment on our complaint so that the public and families so deeply impacted by this crisis can see the allegations of the misconduct that has harmed so many," Massachusetts Attorney General Maura Healey said in a statement to CNN on Monday.
The Purdue Pharmaceuticals legal team plans to seek a stay in the case pending an appellate review of the judge's order, Purdue spokesperson Robert Josephson said Monday.
In a previous statement to CNN, Purdue Pharma said, "To distract from these omissions of fact and the other numerous deficiencies of its claims, the attorney general has cherry-picked from among tens of millions of emails and other business documents produced by Purdue."
The Sackler family's connection
The Sackler family, which Forbes says is worth approximately $13 billion, is well known for its philanthropy around the world. The family name is on museums and galleries around the world, including The Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, the Sackler Museum in Beijing and the Royal Academy in London. Their company Purdue Pharma sells OxyContin and has been criticized in the past for its aggressive marketing of the opioid painkiller.
There have been previous lawsuits against the company, including one multistate federal suit in 2007 settled for $600 million as part of a plea deal. The federal accusation was "misleading and defrauding physicians and consumers," referring to how addictive OxyContin is. The Sackler family was not specifically attached to those suits.
Healey filed the complaint, which names eight members of the Sackler family, alleging they knew OxyContin was causing overdoses and deaths but continued to promote the drug. Nine other people currently or formerly associated with the company are also named in the suit. CNN has reached out to the attorneys for all the defendants for comment, but did not immediately hear back.
"They directed deceptive sales and marketing practices deep within Purdue, sending hundreds of orders to executives and line employees. From the money that Purdue collected selling opioids, they paid themselves and their family billions of dollars," Healey said.
The original suit had been heavily redacted, obscuring specific details related to the Sackler family members and others named in the suit.
A lower court removed some of the redactions earlier this month but Healey argued the 189 paragraphs that remained redacted should be unveiled. "Revealing the truth about Purdue's misconduct is important to achieve justice and make sure deception like Purdue's never happens again," she said in the court complaint.
The complaint said the material concealed shows documents that contradict testimony of Sackler family members.
Suit says doctors were deceived about OxyContin
"From the beginning, the Sacklers viewed limits on opioids as an obstacle to greater profits. To make more money, the Sacklers considered whether they could sell OxyContin in some countries as an uncontrolled drug," the prosecution argues in the sections of the original complaint that were not redacted.
The Sacklers were behind Purdue's decision to deceive doctors and patients, says the suit. "In 1997, Richard Sackler, Kathe Sackler, and other Purdue executives determined — and recorded in secret internal correspondence — that doctors had the crucial misconception that OxyContin was weaker than morphine, which led them to prescribe OxyContin much more often, even as a substitute for Tylenol."
Former Purdue Chairman and President Richard Sackler is described as a micromanager who was constantly trying to push profits even as the opioid crisis was well underway, according to the complaint.
Sackler went to doctor's offices with sales reps at times to push sales, the lawsuit alleges. He also allegedly wanted advertising that was aggressive and positive, even as executives at Purdue were concerned about how he was promoting the drug.
The complaint says that internal documents from 2011 show that Sackler was not satisfied with the number of OxyContin prescriptions. When one week of sales doubled the company's forecast, he told the sales staff, "'I had hoped for better results.'"
In February 2012, Russell Gasdia, who was the sales vice president at that time, sent a message saying, "The Boston District is failing." Internal documents show that the sales manager at the time agreed with Gasdia and said sales reps who weren't increasing opioid prescriptions should be fired. According to those documents in the complaint, Gasdia agreed with this assessment and said firing them would "send a message."
The order from Judge Sanders on Monday ruled that the only paragraph to remain redacted pertains to Gasdia, explaining that prosecutors might remove the allegations from the complaint entirely because they might not be accurate.
The complaint also outlines how the family knew as early as 2013 that deaths from OxyContin had tripled since 1990. "Staff told the Sacklers that tens of thousands of deaths were only the 'tip of the iceberg,'" according to the complaint.
Purdue denies accusations
Purdue previously told CNN that the accusations by Healey, "...irresponsibly and counterproductively casts every prescription of OxyContin as dangerous and illegitimate, substituting its lawyers' sensational allegations for the expert scientific determinations of the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) and completely ignoring the millions of patients who are prescribed Purdue Pharma's medicines for the management of their severe chronic pain."
The statement also notes that OxyContin represents a small percentage of opioid pain drugs, and says the focus should be on solving the "complex public health crisis" caused by opioids.
Purdue also accuses the attorney general of omitting "key facts about the FDA's regulation of opioid medications."
"In April 2010, FDA approved a reformulated version OxyContin, which Purdue developed with properties intended to deter abuse. Purdue worked for over a decade to develop the new formulation, and it was the first FDA-approved opioid with abuse deterrent properties," the statement says.
"The Massachusetts Attorney General commended the FDA for supporting abuse-deterrent formulations and later requiring insurers to cover them; and
"The FDA has directly addressed many of the issues within the Massachusetts complaint and has continued to determine that Purdue Pharma's opioids are safe and effective for their intended use."
As reported by CNN last year, Purdue said it will stop promoting OxyContin to doctors, and said it would reduce its sales force by half at the beginning of 2018.
Oxycontin and the opioid crisis
Opioids are a class of pharmaceuticals that include prescription painkillers like OxyContin as well as illicit drugs like heroin and fentanyl. Opioids are at the root of an ongoing public health crisis in America.
In 2017, there were 47,600 opioid-linked drug fatalities in the United States -- more than the number of deaths linked to breast cancer -- according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
The opioid crisis has raised significant concern about prescription painkillers. Between 1999 and 2009, overdoses from such drugs rose about 13% annually, though the increase has since slowed to 3% per year.
Sales of OxyContin, which is a long-acting version of the drug oxycodone that was designed to deliver medicine over 12 hours, grew rapidly after it hit the market in 1996.