A filing in a Massachusetts lawsuit contains dozens of internal Purdue Pharma documents suggesting the family was far more involved than the company has long contended.
Members of the Sackler family, which owns the company that makes OxyContin, directed years of efforts to mislead doctors and patients about the dangers of the powerful opioid painkiller, a court filing citing previously undisclosed documents contends.
When evidence of growing abuse of the drug became clear in the early 2000s, one of them, Richard Sackler, advised pushing blame onto people who had become addicted.
“We have to hammer on abusers in every way possible,” Mr. Sackler wrote in an email in 2001, when he was president of the company, Purdue Pharma. “They are the culprits and the problem. They are reckless criminals.”
That email and other internal Purdue communications are cited by the attorney general of Massachusetts in a new court filing against the company, released on Tuesday. They represent the first evidence that appears to tie the Sacklers to specific decisions made by the company about the marketing of OxyContin. The aggressive promotion of the drug helped ignite the opioid epidemic.
The filing contends that Mr. Sackler, a son of a Purdue Pharma founder, urged that sales representatives advise doctors to prescribe the highest dosage of the powerful opioid painkiller because it was the most profitable.
Since OxyContin came on the market in 1996, more than 200,000 people have died in the United States from overdoses involving prescription opioids, and Purdue Pharma has been the target of numerous lawsuits.
For years, Purdue Pharma has sought to depict the Sackler family as removed from the day-to-day operations of the company. The Sacklers, whose name adorns museums and medical schools around the world, are one of the richest families in the United States, with much of their wealth derived from sales of OxyContin. Disclosure of the documents is likely to renew calls for institutions to decline their philanthropic gifts.
In a statement, Purdue Pharma, which is based in Stamford, Conn., rejected suggestions of wrongdoing by the company or members of the Sackler family, describing the court filing as “littered with biases and inaccurate characterizations.” The statement said the company was working to curtail the use and misuse of prescription painkillers.
Asked for a response from Richard Sackler and other members of the Sackler family, a Purdue Pharma spokesman, Robert Josephson, said that the company had no additional comment.
In 2007, the company and three of its top executives pleaded guilty to federal criminal charges that Purdue had misrepresented the dangers of OxyContin, and they paid $634.5 million in fines. The Sacklers were not accused of any wrongdoing and have not faced personal legal consequences over the drug.
But last June, Maura Healey, the Massachusetts attorney general, sued eight members of the Sackler family, along with the company and numerous executives and directors, alleging that they had misled doctors and patients about OxyContin’s risks. The suit also claimed that the company aggressively promoted the drug to doctors who were big prescribers of opioids, including physicians who later lost their licenses.
The court filing released on Tuesday also asserts that Sackler family members were aware that Purdue Pharma repeatedly failed to alert authorities to scores of reports the company had received that OxyContin was being abused and sold on the street. The company also used pharmacy discount cards to increase OxyContin’s sales and Richard Sackler, who served as Purdue Pharma’s president from 1999 to 2003, led a company strategy of blaming abuse of the drug on addicts, the suit claimed.
In 1995, when the Food and Drug Administration approved OxyContin, it allowed Purdue Pharma to claim that the opioid’s long-acting formulation was “believed to reduce” its appeal to drug abusers compared with traditional painkillers such as Percocet and Vicodin.
At a gathering shortly afterward to celebrate the drug’s launch, Mr. Sackler boasted that “the launch of OxyContin tablets will be followed by a blizzard of prescriptions that will bury the competition. The prescription blizzard will be so deep, dense, and white,” according to a document cited in the legal complaint.
Company sales representatives told doctors that OxyContin couldn’t be abused and were trained to say that the drug had an addiction risk for patients of “less than one percent,” a claim that had no scientific backing. Within a few years, Purdue Pharma was selling more than $1 billion worth of OxyContin annually.
But abuse of the drug quickly grew as teenagers and others discovered that all they needed to do was to crush OxyContin to get access to large amounts of a pure narcotic, oxycodone, contained in the pills.
The court filing depicts Richard Sackler both as a principal force behind OxyContin’s promotion and the company’s efforts to dismiss growing reports about the drug’s abuse in the early 2000s.
For instance, when a federal prosecutor reported in 2001 that there had been 59 overdose deaths involving OxyContin in his state alone, Mr. Sackler appeared to make light of the problem, a document cited in the court filing suggests.
“This is not too bad,” he wrote to the company officials. “It could have been far worse.”
As part of the 2007 settlement agreement, the board of Purdue Pharma, which included members of the Sackler family, signed a corporate integrity agreement with the federal government promising that the company would not violate the law in the future.
However, Ms. Healey asserted in her lawsuit filed last year that Purdue Pharma, with the knowledge of the Sacklers, continued to illegally market the drug, including promoting its use at levels that increased the drug’s dangers.
Also, while Richard Sackler and other members of the family had resigned their operating posts either before or after the 2007 settlement of the Justice Department lawsuit, they still continued to control the company and its decisions, the lawsuit claims.
In a 2012 email, one Purdue Pharma sales official complained about Richard Sackler’s micromanagement of the company’s sales and marketing activities.
“Anything you could do to reduce the direct contact of Richard into the organization is appreciated,” that official wrote.
In its statement, Purdue Pharma said that federal officials in 2013 had reviewed the company’s performance under the five-year corporate integrity agreement and found it in complete compliance.
Purdue Pharma, first known as Purdue Frederick, was founded in 1952 by three brothers, Arthur, Mortimer and Raymond Sackler, all physicians who left medicine to pursue careers in the drug business.
When Arthur Sackler died in 1987, his two younger brothers, Mortimer and Raymond Sackler, purchased his stake in the company. They both died more recently.
In 2016, Forbes magazine estimated the family’s wealth at about $13 billion. However, the precise figure is unknown because Purdue Pharma is privately held.
A confidential 2006 Department of Justice memorandum prepared in connection with the federal government’s case against Purdue Pharma concluded that the drug maker was aware of OxyContin’s growing abuse soon after it came onto the market in 1996.
That document also cited internal Purdue Pharma documents and emails that indicated members of the Sackler family had received reports about the abuse of OxyContin and another long-acting narcotic painkiller, MS Contin, sold by Purdue Pharma. The memorandum, however, did not suggest any wrongdoing by members of the Sackler family.
Barry Meier, a former reporter for The New York Times, is the author of “Pain Killer: An Empire of Deceit and the Origin of America’s Opioid Epidemic” and “Missing Man: The American Spy Who Disappeared in Iran.”