Family Behind Opioid Epidemic Concealed Strength Of Oxycontin From Doctors

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The Sackler family knew doctors thought OxyContin was weaker than morphine—but telling them the truth would hurt sales.

The pain medication OxyContin turned out to be a massive success for pharmaceutical giant Purdue Pharma, founded by the billionaire Sackler family, but that success was made possible in part by a dangerous deception.

As early as 1997, the company was aware that doctors believed OxyContin was weaker than morphine, but neither Purdue's head of sales and marketing, Michael Friedman, nor Dr. Richard Sackler wanted to correct the record.

This drug and its marketing have played a significant role in the ongoing opioid crisis. According to STAT, Friedman had advised Sackler that “it would be extremely dangerous” to correct the impression that OxyContin was weaker than morphine, because it could risk the success of the drug in both prescriptions and sales.

Sackler agreed, and the company opted not to correct the misconception, despite its prevalence among physicians.

The concealment of the drug’s strength and Sackler’s support of it were allegedly revealed in a series of email exchanges provided in a sealed court document during Sackler's 2015 deposition as part of a lawsuit against Purdue by the state of Kentucky. The case currently sits before the Kentucky Supreme Court.

Sackler’s deposition focused primarily on decisions involving marketing strategy leading up to the drug's launch in 1996. According to some analysts, the “aggressive” marketing of OxyContin may be the reason for the 200,000 overdose deaths from prescription opioids which have occurred in the past 20 years.

During the roll out of OxyContin’s marketing, Sackler demonstrated a passion for ensuring the drug's market success and a disregard for the damage its widespread use might cause. In one email he stated that Oxycontin’s marketing strategy has “outperformed our expectations, market research and fondest dreams.”

In other communications, Sackler pushed for lobbying the German government against labeling OxyContin a controlled substance, hoping other European countries would follow suit and sales would increase.

Sackler pursued this despite warnings from Robert Kaiko, who developed the drug for Purdue, that if Germany loosened restrictions on OxyContin, it was "highly likely that it will eventually be abused there and then controlled.”

Purdue Pharma's marketing strategy for OxyContin has resulted in numerous lawsuits; however, public awareness of such cases is low, as most conclude in a settlement and confidentiality agreement.

Despite this, Sackler has continued to defend the strategy. In the 2015 deposition, he still denied any effort by his company to deceive doctors regarding the strength and danger of OxyContin.

“Sitting here today, after all you’ve come to learn as a witness, do you believe Purdue’s conduct in marketing and promoting OxyContin in Kentucky caused any of the prescription drug addiction problems now plaguing the Commonwealth?” a lawyer for Kentucky asked Sackler.

His response: “I don’t believe so.”

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