By now, most people know of the meteoric success of OxyContin® and the role it plays in the opioid epidemic in the U.S. Oxy (as it’s colloquially known) has been the first step toward prescription drug and heroin addiction for thousands. Despite its widespread use and abuse, few people know about OxyContin’s origin with one family-owned company and the deceptive practices they used to get America hooked.
Clocking in at number 16 on the Forbes 2015 list of America’s Richest Families, the Sackler family is the sole owner of Purdue Pharma, based in Stamford, CT. They are more wealthy than many widely known super-rich, including the Busches, Mellons and Rockefellers. Raymond and Beverly Sackler had a net worth of $14 billion last year, according to Forbes. Raymond had been a practicing psychiatrist in the 1950s when he and his brothers began acquiring drug companies, including the predecessor to Purdue Pharma. Now in his mid 90s, Raymond Sackler no longer manages his company, but he does still enjoy the fruits of its success. Raymond Sackler has lived far better and decades longer than the people who got addicted to his blockbuster drug.
Since its introduction in 1995, Purdue’s OxyContin has earned the Sacklers more than $35 billion. Most years they earn $3 billion from drug sales. The Sacklers also own other drug companies that sell prescription drugs in Asia, Latin America, Canada and Europe, comprising 50% of their revenue.
OxyContin grew widely popular among prescribing physicians in the late 1990s. It claimed to be a time-released and supposedly addiction-proof version of the painkiller oxycodone that had been available for more than 50 years at that point. This claim (now widely understood to be false) and the product’s safer positioning, enabled Purdue Pharma to market it beyond cancer patients, who were the traditional target audience for powerful opioids previously, to anyone suffering from severe pain. By 2002, sales hit $1.5 billion.
Fast forward to the mid 2000s and the discovery that OxyContin was not as abuse-resistant as the Sacklers had claimed. One could easily crush the pills to break the 12-hour, time-release mechanism, then snort the powder like heroin. Addiction, overdoses and accidental deaths followed, so Purdue Pharma found itself facing charges that it had misbranded OxyContin as far less risky than it was.
- In 2007, Purdue Pharma paid $635 million in fines after pleading guilty to false marketing charges by the Department of Justice.
- In December 2015, the State of Kentucky won court-specified damages worth $24 million as part of the settlement of a long-running lawsuit that accused Purdue Pharma of misleading the public about the addictiveness OxyContin. State officials said the false claims led to high levels of addiction and increased medical costs across the state, particularly among injured coal miners in eastern Kentucky who were widely prescribed OxyContin.
- Purdue Pharma did not admit any wrongdoing in the settlement agreements and the Sackler family has not been charged with a crime to date.
The company reformulated OxyContin in 2010, making it more difficult to abuse. However, it remains widely abused.
Even with changes, OxyContin’s legacy is secure. Eighty percent of the world’s oxycodone is consumed by Americans and deaths by overdoses involving prescription painkillers have quadrupled since 1999. Today, at least half of all U.S. opioid overdose deaths involve a prescription opioid. Every day, an estimated 50 Americans die from prescription painkiller overdoses. Every year, prescription painkillers cause more than 16,000 deaths and 475,000 emergency room visits.
OxyContin’s legacy is one of abuse and death, yet one family, the Sacklers, continues to amass a fortune.
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