As Purdue Pharma Agrees to Settle with the DOJ, Revisit Its Role in the Opioid Crisis
In the ongoing battle over who is responsible for the nation’s opioid crisis, Purdue Pharma, the maker of OxyContin, has reached a settlement with the Department of Justice. (George Frey/Bloomberg via Getty Images)
Update: On Nov. 24, 2020, Purdue Pharma formally pleaded guilty to three felony charges as part of the settlement.
In the latest chapter of a complex legal battle over who is responsible for the nation’s opioid crisis, Purdue Pharma, the manufacturer of the notorious painkiller OxyContin, has arrived at an $8.3 billion settlement with the federal government, pending court approval.
Announced in an Oct. 21 Department of Justice press conference, the settlement, if approved, resolves the federal government’s civil and criminal probes into Purdue Pharma, which is currently in bankruptcy; an additional settlement resolves a federal civil case against Purdue Pharma’s owners, the Sackler family.
“It’s also important to note that this resolution does not prohibit future criminal or civil penalties against Purdue Pharma’s executives or employees,” Jeffrey A. Rosen, the U.S. deputy attorney general, said at the press conference.
Under the settlement, Purdue Pharma admits guilt on three felony charges involving conspiring to defraud the U.S. and break anti-kickback regulations in how it marketed opioids. The settlement involves a $3.5 billion criminal fine and a $2 billion criminal forfeiture, as well as a civil payment of $2.8 billion, though actual monetary payments could be substantially less, once the company’s value is factored in. Separately, the Sacklers themselves will make a $225 million payment to the U.S.
The settlement “will require that the company be dissolved and no longer exist in its present form,” Rosen said, with the Sacklers barred from any controlling or owning role moving forward. Instead, if the settlement is approved by bankruptcy court, the company’s assets would become “owned by a trust for the benefit of the American public,” Rosen said. The new company would still be able to manufacture opioid drugs but would also be required to produce large quantities of medicines to treat and respond to addiction and overdoses, and would need to offer the latter as donations or “at cost.”
“Purdue deeply regrets and accepts responsibility for the misconduct detailed by the Department of Justice in the agreed statement of facts,” Steve Miller, chairman of Purdue Pharma’s board, said in a statement.
In a separate statement, Sackler family members who served on the Purdue Pharma board said they had “acted ethically and lawfully” and that they “reached today’s agreement in order to facilitate a global resolution that directs substantial funding to communities in need, rather than to years of legal proceedings.”
The statement also said, “Regarding the plea agreement between the government and Purdue, no member of the Sackler family was involved in that conduct or served in a management role at Purdue during that time period.”
A number of states’ attorneys general spoke out against the terms of the proposed settlement as inadequate and vowed to continue to pursue cases against the company and the Sacklers, which the federal settlements do not resolve.
Purdue Pharma has long been accused of being a driver of America’s opioid crisis. FRONTLINE’s 2016 documentary Chasing Heroin investigated how that crisis came to be, examining allegations about Purdue Pharma’s role in the early years of what has been called the worst drug epidemic in U.S. history.
“There is no question that the marketing of OxyContin was the most aggressive marketing of a narcotic drug ever undertaken by a pharmaceutical producer,” Barry Meier, author of Pain Killer, told FRONTLINE in the documentary.
As Chasing Heroin recounted, the problem of under-treated pain in America opened the door for a push by drug companies around opioids. Purdue Pharma seized the moment and by 2001 was selling more than $1 billion worth of OxyContin a year. As part of its marketing for the drug, the company produced promotional videos aimed at encouraging doctors to treat pain more aggressively, convincing them that addiction to OxyContin would be an unlikely outcome for their patients.
“Purdue Pharma managed to persuade a lot of good people in medicine that they needed to dramatically up their prescriptions of opioids,” Keith Humphreys, a Stanford University professor, told FRONTLINE. “Now, part of the reason they were able to do that is that there was clear evidence there were some people in pain who didn’t need to be in pain, and we had underused them. There’s no doubt about that. But it’s also no doubt about it that they were commercially driven.”
In 2018, Purdue Pharma said its sales representatives would no longer target doctors in promoting opioid drugs.
For more on the roots of the continuing heroin and opioid crises, stream Chasing Heroin in full below, on YouTube, in FRONTLINE’s online collection of streaming films, or in the PBS Video App:
And in the 2020 FRONTLINE/Financial Times documentary, Opioids, Inc., revisit the federal government’s criminal prosecution of another opioid drugmaker, Insys Therapeutics — which saw prison sentences for top executives, a first in connection with the opioid crisis:
This story has been updated to include excerpts of a statement from members of the Sackler family.