Purdue Pharma Used Shady Marketing to Spread Opioids, and McHenry Is Striking Back
As of March 2018, McHenry County as well as four other suburban IL are all suing top opioid manufacturers for their roles in the ongoing epidemic that’s seized the country. They join over a hundred other counties throughout the country that are doing the same. At the root of it all is one company that played the leading role: Purdue Pharma, founded and led by the Sackler family.
Purdue Pharma has a long history of using dishonest marketing tactics to push the medical community to accept and promote their products. Let’s take a closer look at that history, as well as McHenry County’s lawsuit against them.
How Did Purdue Pharma Start the Opioid Crisis?
It all started with three brothers in mid-20th century Brooklyn: Raymond, Mortimer, and Arthur Sackler. All three were doctors and entrepreneurs, but it was Arthur who first brought modern Madison Avenue advertising approaches to the pharmaceutical industry.
His ad agency directed pharmaceutical companies to start paying for studies that showed how useful their products were. They also started hiring well-known doctors to promote their products. They filled doctors’ offices with attractive promo brochures and put flashy ads in medical journals. In 1959, one national magazine investigation even found that they were making up nonexistent doctors and listing them as endorsing their new antibiotic.
The money really started flowing in the 60s, after Sackler’s marketing efforts made tranquilizers Valium and Librium into household names. This led to millions of annual tranquilizer prescriptions, which Senator Edward Kennedy in 1973 declared “a nightmare of dependence and addiction.
They didn’t stop there, though. Purdue Pharma, the drug company which Sackler ran, set out to tap into the vast profits possible through opioids. They initiated a massive marketing campaign for OxyContin, their own new take on the opioid oxycodone.
First, they had to overcome the fear doctors had of opioids’ addictive properties. They funded and circulated research that claimed OxyContin was safe and urged doctors to prescribe it for a wide variety of conditions. They hired up to a thousand sales reps to visit doctors’ offices in person and push the drug. They also hired a few thousand clinicians to promote OxyContin at medical conferences, and offered doctors all-expenses-paid trips to pain-management seminars in exotic places like Boca Raton.
Their efforts paid off: OxyContin was approved by the FDA in 1995 (by an FDA examiner who would later work for Purdue). The drug generated $35 billion in revenue.
Problems surfaced almost immediately, though. The drug was formulated to release over the course of 12 hours, but abusers were crushing the pills to get a quick high. Not only that, but the relief the drug offered actually lasted much less than 12 hours, leaving even responsible users with constant cravings. Deaths started mounting—in Pike County, Kentucky, almost 30% of residents lost a family member or knew someone who lost a family member to OxyContin.
Yet Purdue suppressed this reality by continually recruiting politically connected figures like former New York mayor Rudy Giuliani to interfere with regulatory efforts. When lawsuits started cropping up in the early 2000s, Purdue settled out of court to make them go away without revealing any incriminating information.
The closest Purdue has ever come to an admission of guilt came last month, when they announced their sales reps would no longer be swarming doctors’ offices to push OxyContin. “We won’t do it anymore” isn’t exactly an apology, though, and it certainly doesn’t reverse the damage done. Not only that, but they’re also still paying subsidies to nonprofits that promote opioid use here and abroad.
Meanwhile, Forbes estimates that the Sackler family’s net worth is $13 billion. They pulled in about $700 million in 2015 alone from their pharma interests.
How Is McHenry County Taking on Purdue Pharma?
In response to the epidemic sweeping through the nation, many cities and counties throughout the country are taking legal action. For example, Chicago is suing the top three opioid distributers for “unfettered and unlawful distribution of opioids” that has fueled the public health crisis.
The city was already a pioneer in this field: four years ago, Chicago sued opioid manufacturers for misrepresenting opioids’ benefits, hiding addiction risks, and targeting veterans and the elderly with bogus medical claims. Two years later, the city formed an agreement with Pfizer, one of the world’s largest drug companies, to obey strict standards for marketing and promoting opioids.
Now McHenry, Lake, Kane, Will, and DuPage counties have filed lawsuits against seven drug makers, including Purdue Pharma, as well as three doctors. Paul Hanly of Simmons Hanly Conroy LLC, who is representing all those except Lake County, is also representing almost 100 other counties across five different US states in similar cases.
Hanly first sued Purdue Pharma back in 2003. In 2006, Purdue Pharma admitted to having underplayed the addictiveness of their pain pills and settled for $75 million. Since then, Hanly has represented thousands of people who became addicted to those opioids.
The five Illinois counties are suing the drug manufacturers to compensate for the toll this epidemic has taken on their public health resources. They’ve lost massive amounts of public funds due to the increased need for substance abuse counseling, hospitalization costs, emergency services, and law enforcement. Any money they win from the lawsuit will go towards addiction resources to alleviate the damage done to our communities.
The McHenry County State’s Attorney has said that would include a local detox center, since he says the county currently has no recovery beds for people just entering sobriety.
It’s about time that we start standing together to hold someone accountable for the crisis that’s been unleashed on our communities, and this is a good start. There’s a real need for additional resources, and the funding from these suits could have a big impact in helping the people who’ve been most affected.
We here at NDARS look forward to being part of that effort by providing resources such as affordable sober housing, which are greatly needed in the sober community.