Richard Sackler Sought to ‘Play Down’ Risk Concerns of OxyContin: Report

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Richard Sackler, the former president of Purdue Pharma, wanted prescribers to know that when it comes to treating pain, OxyContin was the way to go. And, in order to boost those sales, that meant the company had to downplay any concerns regarding the risk of addiction.

Those insights into Sackler’s control of the company and his aggressive stance on marketing OxyContin were revealed this week when internal company documents were unsealed following a four-year court battle in Kentucky. The information in the newly unsealed documents mirror revelations from Purdue communications that were made public in a court battle in Massachusetts. The new documents unsealed in a Kentucky case, which BioSpace has not seen, show that Sackler sought to stamp out any concerns about the potential for abuse. According to STAT News, which first reported the information, following the launch of OxyContin, Merck Medco, a pharmacy benefits manager, began to raise concern that the use of the medication to treat chronic pain could lead to abuse. Those warnings were a red flag to Purdue because the company wanted OxyContin to become the leading therapeutic for non-cancer pain.

When Merck Medco raised its concerns, Sackler said in an email chain that any addiction concerns could be “obliterated.” According to the report, Sackler said Purdue executives should give a “convincing presentation” to prescribers that OxyContin, which was billed as a controlled-release medication, was ““less prone to addiction potential, abuse or diversion” than other opioids. That set the groundwork for the company’s highly aggressive marketing tactics that turned OxyContin into the poster-child of the opioid crisis.

The newly unsealed documents show that Sackler called for a marketing campaign to counter the concerns raised by Merck Medco, STAT reported.

“We may need to start a campaign to focus attention on the untreated patient in severe pain who is mobilized and given his life back by our products… I think that this is something that we should start this year,” Sackler said in one of the emails, according to the report.

Earlier this year, Sackler’s 337-page deposition in the Kentuck case was made public, which also shows that Sackler was firmly in command of his company’s OxyContin push. The revelations of that deposition showed that Sackler and other Purdue executives developed plans to conceal how powerful the medication was. Any misinformation about the power of OxyContin was not to be corrected, the company decided. In fact, depositions in the Kentucky case showed that Purdue executives were aware of the view held by many physicians that OxyContin was actually much weaker than it was.

In the Massachusetts legal proceedings, it was revealed just how important the success of OxyContin was to the Sackler family. Between 2008 and 2015, the Sackler family made more than $4 billion off the sale of OxyContin. In 2010 alone, the Sackler family received $877 million from OxyContin sales. During the launch party for OxyContin, Sackler called for a “blizzard of prescriptions.” He predicted that the number of paper prescriptions for OxyContin would be “deep, dense and white.”

The information coming out of the various documents being unsealed in courthouses across the U.S. bolsters a 2018 report released by the U.S. Department of Justice that showed the company knew about "significant" abuse of OxyContin in the first years after the drug's introduction in 1996 and concealed that information.” The DOJ report said that Purdue executives knew the opioid pills were being crushed and snorted as abusers sought to get high faster.

In September, Purdue, beset by countless lawsuits, filed for bankruptcy and agreed to pay between $10 and $12 billion to settle its involvement in the opioid crisis. While Purdue is fading, the Sackler family has reportedly not changed its ways when it comes to the aggressive marketing tactics for opioids A November report from the Associated Press showed the family is using similar marketing tactics to push sales of OxyContin in China through another company they own, Mundipharma. According to the report, Mundipharma representatives are informing doctors that OxyContin is less addictive than other painkillers. Additionally, Mundipharma has pushed for the use of even larger doses of opioids in China, the AP reported.

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