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Purdue Pharma admits to crimes for its OxyContin marketing. But no one is going to prison.

The Justice Department announced an $8 billion settlement with Purdue on Wednesday.

Deputy US Attorney General Jeffrey Rosen announces a federal settlement with Purdue Pharma over the OxyContin maker’s role in the opioid epidemic.
Yuri Gripas/AFP via Getty Images

OxyContin maker Purdue Pharma has reached a supposedly $8 billion settlement with the federal government in which it pleads guilty in a criminal investigation over its role in the opioid epidemic, the US Department of Justice announced Wednesday.

As part of the settlement, Purdue will plead guilty to three counts related to its misleading marketing of opioid painkillers and faces a $3.5 billion criminal fine, $2 billion in criminal forfeitures, and a $2.8 billion civil settlement.

Purdue admits it illegally and misleadingly marketed its opioids, including “to more than 100 health care providers whom the company had good reason to believe were diverting opioids” for misuse; illegally paid doctors to prescribe more opioids; and took part in other fraudulent and illegal practices. Purdue says it did all of this between 2007 and at least 2017 — after a separate guilty plea in 2007 forced the company to pay more than $600 million in fines.

But no one — neither the company’s executives nor members of the Sackler family, which owns Purdue — will go to jail or prison as a result of the settlement.

Despite the settlement, it’s unclear how much Purdue will actually pay. The company is in the middle of bankruptcy proceedings, with claims from other people to whom it effectively owes money. The federal government is only one of many entities that Purdue’s holdings will likely be divvied up among.

The Justice Department also threw its support behind a deal that would turn Purdue into a public benefit company overseen by new leadership, with proceeds from OxyContin and other drugs purportedly going to help victims of the opioid crisis. Purdue previously proposed the deal to settle thousands of lawsuits against it, including from local and state governments, over its role in the opioid crisis.

Dozens of states have rejected that deal. They argue that it lets the Sacklers off the hook, since they’d remain very wealthy and out of prison, and that using revenue from OxyContin sales to fund efforts to stop the opioid crisis presents a conflict of interest.

Some critics also claim that the Justice Department’s settlement is a political ploy before Election Day — to shore up President Donald Trump’s weak record on the opioid epidemic.

“DOJ failed,” Massachusetts Attorney General Maura Healey said. “Justice in this case requires exposing the truth and holding the perpetrators accountable, not rushing a settlement to beat an election. I am not done with Purdue and the Sacklers, and I will never sell out the families who have been calling for justice for so long.”

The Justice Department said the settlement with Purdue doesn’t release anyone, including the Sackler family, from criminal liability — meaning they could be prosecuted and incarcerated in the future. A criminal investigation into the Sacklers is ongoing, according to the Associated Press.

It does, however, free Purdue and the Sacklers from the federal government’s civil claims. But states and others can continue pursuing civil litigation.

Besides Purdue, other opioid makers and distributors currently face criminal investigations and civil lawsuits. Earlier this year, the founder and former CEO of opioid maker Insys, John Kapoor, was sentenced to five and a half years in prison. Other opioid businesses, including Rochester Drug Cooperative, also face criminal charges.

Opioid companies have fueled the drug overdose crisis

Since 1999, nearly 500,000 people have died from opioid overdoses — either on painkillers themselves, or in many cases heroin or illicit fentanyl through a drug addiction that began with painkillers. Pharmaceutical companies were at the forefront of causing the crisis with aggressive marketing that pushed doctors to prescribe more painkillers. That put the drugs in the hands of not just patients but also friends and family of patients, teens who took the drugs from their parents’ medicine cabinets, and people who bought excess pills from the black market.

Studies have linked marketing for opioids to more prescriptions and overdose deaths.

With OxyContin, Purdue — and the Sacklers — led the charge on this kind of marketing. They claimed that their opioid painkiller, which first hit the market in 1996, was safe and effective, both claims which are now contradicted by the real-world and scientific evidence.

Among Purdue’s alleged crimes, according to the Justice Department:

  • “Purdue learned that one doctor was known by patients as ‘the Candyman’ and was prescribing ‘crazy dosing of OxyContin,’ yet Purdue had sales representatives meet with the doctor more than 300 times.”
  • “The Named Sacklers then approved a new marketing program beginning in 2013 called ‘Evolve to Excellence,’ through which Purdue sales representatives intensified their marketing of OxyContin to extreme, high-volume prescribers who were already writing ‘25 times as many OxyContin scripts’ as their peers, causing health care providers to prescribe opioids for uses that were unsafe, ineffective, and medically unnecessary, and that often led to abuse and diversion.”
  • “Between June 2009 and March 2017, Purdue made payments to two doctors through Purdue’s doctor speaker program to induce those doctors to write more prescriptions of Purdue’s opioid products. Similarly, from approximately April 2016 through December 2016, Purdue made payments to Practice Fusion Inc., an electronic health records company, in exchange for referring, recommending, and arranging for the ordering of Purdue’s extended release opioid products — OxyContin, Butrans, and Hysingla.”

The Sacklers, for their part, continue to deny culpability for the opioid epidemic. The family claimed in a statement, “Members of the Sackler family who served on Purdue’s board of directors acted ethically and lawfully, and the upcoming release of company documents will prove that fact in detail. This history of Purdue will also demonstrate that all financial distributions were proper.”

Of course, many people simply don’t believe this. They point to the evidence — not just in the federal government’s case but in the lawsuits filed by dozens of states — that indicates the Sacklers were heavily involved in Purdue’s marketing for OxyContin.

Now some critics are calling not just for Purdue to face criminal culpability, but for the company’s executives and the Sacklers to as well. They argue that prison time is necessary, because fines that add up to a fraction of a company or family’s wealth aren’t enough to send a message.

“If [the Sacklers] have the perception — and it’s the correct perception — that ‘people like us just don’t go to jail, we just don’t, so the worst that’s going to happen is you take some reputational stings and you’ll have to write a check,’ that seems like a recipe for nurturing criminality,” Stanford drug policy expert Keith Humphreys previously told me.

For now, though, the Sacklers and other Purdue executives continue to escape that level of punishment.

For more on the case for prosecuting opioid executives, read Vox’s full story.