By: Marcus J. Hopkins, Policy Consultant
Purdue Pharma and its owners, the Sackler family, have settled yet another lawsuit, this time in Oklahoma, to the tune of nearly $275 million in a case that alleged the pharmaceutical giant and its owners actively ignited and fueled a nationwide opioid epidemic (Goldberg, 2019). The settlement allows Purdue and the Sacklers to avoid a public trial that was scheduled for the end of May.
Well…it allows them to avoid that public trial.
No sooner had the settlement been announced on Tuesday, March 26th, than the New York state Attorney General, Letitia James, filed a civil suit against not only Purdue Pharma, but eight specific members of the Sackler family, and a host of other pharmaceutical companies including manufacturers, distributers, and holding companies (Rabin, 2019).
And these are just the latest lawsuits faced by prescription opioid makers. States, counties, and municipalities around the nation are taking pages directly out of the 1990s tobacco company lawsuit playbook and applying them to a much more insidious threat: addictive pain relievers passed off as legitimate consumer medications. The charges are strikingly similar in scope, nature, and fact: these companies knowingly sold, distributed, and attempted to increase the popularity of substances they knew to be highly addictive, concealed that information from the public, and did so strictly for financial gain.
This time, however, those files these suits are not just going after the companies who knowingly profited off of the suffering and addiction of human beings; they are naming names, and specifically going after individual family members who, according to filings from a Massachusetts lawsuit that includes dozens of internal Purdue Pharma documents, directed these coverups, attempted to shift the blame onto patients, and shifted hundreds of millions of dollars out of Purdue’s coffers into their own accounts and trusts, including offshore accounts, in efforts to protect that money from being seized (Rabin).
The United States and countries around the world have been paying the price for Purdue and the Sacklers’ greed for over twenty years, despite the settlements, despite the judgments, and despite the attempts at reformulation that led prescription opioid addicts to turn to Injection Drug Use (IDU), learning how to melt down their products, filter out the coating, and inject their deadly drugs directly into their bloodstreams. And yet, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA), as well as local, state, and Federal governments, have been seemingly unable to do what is necessary and pull every prescription opioid drug off the commercial market, restricting it only to palliative usage.
Governments have been paralyzed not by the pharmaceutical companies and their owners directly, but by the “Pain Advocacy” non-profit advocacy groups these companies and their owners directly fund. A report published in 2018 found that fourteen non-profit organizations, mostly representing pain patients and specialists, received nearly $9 million from the drugmakers, while doctors affiliated with those groups received an additional $1.6 million (Perrone & Mulvihill, 2018). Whenever legislation arises that would curb prescription opioid distribution or add another layer of monitoring, these organizations rise to the challenge, going out in force to contact legislators, their largest donors, and speak at public hearings.
And their tales are often harrowing. Lawmakers will hear stories about crippling pain that renders speakers all but immobile, and how nothing had worked to relieve their unbearable pain…until prescription opioids became available for purchase by the general public with a prescription. Since then, those living with chronic pain have finally been able to function normally and live a happy life.
The reality is that these people are not functioning normally. Prescription opioid drugs work because they fundamentally change the chemistry of the brain, specifically the opioid receptors that can stop electric pulses from traveling through your nerve cells when opioids bind with the three major receptors, Mu, Kappa, and Delta. These effects, primarily controlled by the Mu-opiate receptor, are the same whether the opiates are heroin or prescription pills (Akpan & Griffin, 2017).
When these activists speak of being able to function normally, they are deluding themselves; they have become dependent upon opioid drugs in order to function, and the reason why other methods of pain relief “feel” less effective after they’ve been taking prescription opioid drugs is because their chemically altered brain wants to accept no substitutions. They are addicted…just not to the same degree as those they seek to blame for being uncaring about their pain.
I have sat in on and participated in more roundtables and action committees about opioid abuse in the past five years than I have HIV conferences, and the common and incredulously furious refrain I hear from Pain advocates and activists is this:
“Why is my pain not important in this conversation?!”
Every time this phrase, or some variation of it, is forcefully delivered, legislators, organizers, and public health officials and advocates all scurry to assuage the speaker:
“Of course your pain is important. We are trying to make changes that keep chronic pain sufferers in mind.”
I know I am not going to win any friends by saying this – in fact I might just lose a few – but, the cold, hard reality of the situation is this:
Your pain is not more important than the lives of your fellow citizens and pandering to your controlled addiction literally has a body count.
That’s the truth. Nobody’s pain relief should ever come at the cost of human lives, and the reality is that, by continuing to allow prescription opioids to be sold on the commercial market in order to appease the pain lobby, the U.S. and other governments, as well as pharmaceutical companies, the families who own them, the doctors who prescribe opioids, and the people who think their pain is more important are all complicit in creating an international epidemic that kills between 40,000 to 50,000 deaths annually from opioid overdoses (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 2018).
So, while these lawsuits against Purdue Pharma, Endo Pharmaceuticals, and the Sacklers are all well and good, nothing is going to change if we do not stop allowing these companies to settle the cases to avoid stock losses, start holding them accountable, and pull these drugs from the commercial markets. Until then, the bodies will continue to pile up, prevention, recovery, and treatment efforts will continue to be underfunded by Federal, state, and local governments, and the U.S. will continue to slide further into this epidemic with no end in sight.
Get it together, America.
- Akpan, N. & Griffin, J. (2017, October 09). How a brain gets hooked on opioids. Arlington, VA: PBS NewsHour: NewsHour Productions: Science. Retrieved from: https://www.pbs.org/newshour/science/brain-gets-hooked-opioids
- Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. (2018, December 19). Drug Overdose Deaths. Atlanta, GA: United States Department of Health and Human Services: Centers for Disease Control and Prevention: National Center for Injury Prevention and Control: Division of Unintentional Injury. Retrieved from: https://www.cdc.gov/drugoverdose/data/statedeaths.html
- Goldberg, D. (2019, March 26). Purdue Pharma agrees to $270M opioid settlement with Oklahoma. Arlington, VA: Politico. Retrieved from: https://www.politico.com/story/2019/03/26/purdue-pharma-opioids-oklahoma-1236891
- Parrone, M. & Mulvihill, G. (2018, February 12). OPIOID MAKERS PAID MILLIONS TO ADVOCACY GROUPS THAT PROMOTED THEIR PAINKILLERS AMID ADDICTION EPIDEMIC. Washington, DC: The Center for Public Integrity: State Politics. Retrieved from: https://publicintegrity.org/state-politics/opioid-makers-paid-millions-to-advocacy-groups-that-promoted-their-painkillers-amid-addiction-epidemic/
- Rabin, R.C. (2019, March 28). New York Sues Sackler Family Members and Drug Distributors. New York, NY: The New York Times: Health. Retrieved from: https://www.nytimes.com/2019/03/28/health/new-york-lawsuit-opioids-sacklers-distributors.html
Disclaimer: HEAL Blogs do not necessarily reflect the views of the Community Access National Network (CANN), but rather they provide a neutral platform whereby the author serves to promote open, honest discussion about Hepatitis-related issues and updates. Please note that the content of some of the HEAL Blogs might be graphic due to the nature of the issues being addressed in it.