By The Associated Press
NEW YORK—New York on Thursday sued the billionaire family behind the company that created OxyContin, joining a growing list of state and local governments alleging the drugmaker sparked the nation’s opioid crisis by putting hunger for profits over patient safety.
The state, which averages nine opioid-related deaths per day, expanded an existing lawsuit against pill maker Purdue Pharma to add members of its controlling Sackler family as defendants. The state also added as defendants five other companies that produce opioid painkillers and four drug distributors.
“This is an extensive lawsuit that leaves no stone unturned,” New York Attorney General Letitia James, a Democrat, said at a news conference.
Representatives for Purdue and Sackler family members said the suit misleadingly blames them for a problem that’s far bigger than OxyContin.
“The state is seeking to publicly vilify Purdue” and the Sacklers with ill-supported claims about a drug that currently accounts for under 2 percent of all opioid prescriptions, the Stamford, Connecticut-based company said in a statement.
The Sackler relatives named in the suit—all former Purdue board members who remain shareholders—said in a statement issued through a spokeswoman that they “have always acted properly.”
They and the company said they would fight the new allegations, which come two days after Purdue and the Sacklers agreed to pay $270 million to the state of Oklahoma to settle an opioid lawsuit there. In settling the case, Purdue denied any wrongdoing.
A wave of lawsuits
It was the first settlement in a recent wave of nearly 2,000 lawsuits that the company says could push it into bankruptcy.
New York’s attorney general said Thursday that she was open to settlement talks but hadn’t been approached.
The New York lawsuit seeks penalties and damages that could add up to tens of millions of dollars and a dedicated fund to curb the opioid epidemic. It also seeks to have the companies stripped of their licenses and barred from marketing and distributing painkillers in New York until they abide by strict safeguards.
Purdue and the other drug manufacturers and distributors, the lawsuit said, deliberately betrayed their duties under state drug laws “in order to profiteer from the plague they knew would be unleashed.”
New Yorker Justin Sangeorge says he experienced that plague firsthand after having a dental procedure, getting an opioid prescription and becoming addicted.
“I couldn’t believe how readily available pharmaceutical drugs were,” said the social worker, who has gotten treatment, is now recovering and spoke at a news conference with James.
“We hold accountable drug dealers, drug traffickers, I know, but the pharmaceutical companies hide behind this legitimate enterprise, and as far as I’m concerned, are just as guilty as a drug trafficker or a drug cartel,” Sangeorge said.
Pills, then heroin
New York’s lawsuit echoes other cases, alleging the Sacklers’ and Purdue’s aggressive marketing of OxyContin beginning in the mid-1990s led to massive over-prescribing and a scourge of dependency, addiction and death. Once the pills ran out, the lawsuit alleges, many patients craving the same effects turned to cheaper, more potent alternatives: heroin and fentanyl.
New York’s lawsuit accuses drug manufacturers of collaborating to falsely deny the serious risks of opioid addiction. It accuses drug distributors of saturating the state with opioids while lacking adequate compliance systems to spot potential red flags. Both groups are accused of lying to state regulators.
Purdue is accused of downplaying the addiction risks and pushing doctors to increase dosages even as the dangers became known, the lawsuit said. Some of the company’s marketing tactics included hiring a respected New York City doctor to tout the drug and sending representatives on more than a million sales visits to doctors’ offices, the lawsuit said.
Richard Sackler, then senior vice president responsible for sales, proudly told the audience at an OxyContin launch party in 1996 that it would create a “blizzard of prescriptions that will bury the competition,” the lawsuit said.
In a statement on the Oklahoma case, the Stamford, Connecticut-based company said the money that will go toward addiction studies and treatment in the state will help people across the country. CEO Craig Landau said the company is committed to “help drive solutions to the opioid addiction crisis.”
Members of the Sackler family weren’t defendants in the Oklahoma case and voluntarily contributed to the settlement, the company said. “We have profound compassion for those who are affected by addiction,” the family said in a statement.
The Sacklers have given tens of millions of dollars to New York City cultural institutions. Several members of the family own multimillion-dollar Manhattan apartments. One has a $5 million Long Island estate.
In the past few weeks, as the accusations against the family have mounted, the Tate museums in London and the Guggenheim Museum in New York have cut ties with the family, and other institutions have come under pressure to turn down donations or remove the Sackler name.
New York’s lawsuit underscores the impact of opioid addiction in the state. From 2010 to 2013, the lawsuit said, there was a threefold increase in heroin-related deaths in New York. Since 2013, opioid-related deaths in the state have more than doubled and there’s been a 30-fold increase in fentanyl-related deaths in New York City.
The lawsuit also highlighted the death of one New York woman: Saige Earley, who was found dead last September in a bathroom stall at the Syracuse airport with a needle in her arm and a boarding pass for a flight to drug rehab in her hand. Earley, 23, had turned to heroin after getting hooked on painkillers when she had her wisdom teeth pulled.