Purdue Pharma has settled a lawsuit with the state of Oklahoma over the addictiveness of its blockbuster pill, OxyContin. The drug maker and its owners, the Sackler family, will pay the state nearly $275 million.
Of that sum, $100 million will fund a new facility for addiction treatment and research at Oklahoma State University, and $20 million will pay for addiction treatment medications.
This settlement is historic. It’s the biggest payout a state has ever received from Purdue. And while new funding for addiction treatment is always great news, there is a downside. With this settlement, the exact details of Purdue’s shadowy OxyContin marketing effort will remain a secret. The New York Times writes:
The $275 million payout is significantly larger than earlier settlements between Purdue and other states. The company settled a lawsuit brought by West Virginia in 2004 for $10 million and one brought by Kentucky in 2015 for $24 million.
But the settlement also means that the public will not hear a full recounting of Purdue’s actions in promoting OxyContin to doctors and underplaying its addictive properties, including testimony by members of the Sackler family.
Purdue’s now-infamous marketing of OxyContin was relentless. The company downplayed risks and insisted that their new pill could be safely used to treat all sorts of everyday pain, without much evidence to back up that claim. This led to widespread overprescribing, and local communities found themselves flooded with the pills. According to a paper in the American Journal of Public Health, “When Purdue Pharma introduced OxyContin in 1996, it was aggressively marketed and highly promoted. Sales grew from $48 million in 1996 to almost $1.1 billion in 2000. The high availability of OxyContin correlated with increased [misuse], diversion, and addiction, and by 2004 OxyContin had become a leading drug of [misuse] in the United States.”
This situation was one of the biggest initial drivers of the opioid epidemic. And years later, the problem has only worsened. Drug overdoses, now driven by more easily accessible illicit opioids like heroin and fentanyl, claim 192 American lives a day.
The Sacklers have been the subject of unflattering media coverage in recent years, scrutinizing the family’s connection to the opioid epidemic. As a result, several prestigious museums, including England’s National Portrait Gallery, are now refusing millions in donations from the philanthropic family.
The money that the Sacklers have agreed to pay in Oklahoma will help give more citizens with substance use disorders access to the treatment that they need. This settlement just might mark a new era of holding pharmaceutical companies accountable for the opioid epidemic, which their products and sales practices helped to create.