Tong: Documents show disregard for opioid abusers
STAMFORD — Connecticut Attorney General William Tong released Tuesday an unredacted version of the state’s lawsuit against OxyContin maker Purdue Pharma, revealing emails from 2001 that he said showed company co-owner and former CEO and President Richard Sackler’s “shocking and offensive” disregard for victims of the opioid crisis — an assertion contested by Sackler’s attorney.
The latest version of the complaint ratchets up the already-intense pressure on Purdue and, particularly, Dr. Richard Sackler, who is accused of
describing opioid abusers as “victimizers.” While seven other Sackler family members who own the firm are also named in the lawsuit, he has emerged as a particularly controversial figure because of the proliferation of allegations that he orchestrated the fraudulent and reckless marketing of OxyContin — practices that Tong and other prosecutors blame for fueling the opioid crisis in their states.
“These emails are far more than a momentary lapse in judgment between friends — they encapsulate the depraved indifference to human suffering that infected Purdue’s entire business model,” Tong said in a statement. “Purdue and defendant members of the Sackler family knew people were dying, but they continued to push their opioids in blind pursuit of profit. Purdue and the Sacklers must be held accountable.”
Richard Sackler’s attorney, David Bernick, disputed the lawsuit’s characterization of his client.
“Dr. Sackler has apologized for using insensitive language that doesn’t reflect what he actually did,” Bernick’s statement said. “These emails were written two decades ago following news reports about criminal activity involving prescription opioids, such as drug-store robberies. Dr. Sackler was expressing his worry that this news coverage would stigmatize an essential FDA-approved medication that doctors feel is critical for treating their patients in pain.”
Purdue, as a company, re-issued an earlier statement that denied the lawsuit’s allegations and described the litigation as “part of a continuing effort to try these cases in the court of public opinion rather than the justice system.”
Alleged leader of misconduct
The previously undisclosed 2001 emails were sent about midway through Richard Sackler’s four-year stint as CEO and president of Purdue, according to the lawsuit.
Their implication that “addiction is not caused by opioids, but by the patient, is consistent with a long-held position” of Richard Sackler, the lawsuit said.
Among the communications referenced in the litigation is an exchange between Richard Sackler and an unnamed acquaintance, in which the acquaintance said that “abusers die; well, that is the choice they made. I doubt a single one didn’t know of the risks.”
Richard Sackler responded that “abusers aren’t victims; they are the victimizers.”
In a separate 2001 email correspondence with the same acquaintance, Richard Sackler sought the person’s reaction to a Time magazine article on OxyContin, the lawsuit said. The associate said “the whole thing is a sham, and if people die because they abuse it, then good riddance.”
“Unfortunately, when I’m ambushed by ‘60 Minutes,’ I can’t easily get this concept across,” Richard Sackler replied. “Calling drug addicts ‘scum of the earth’ will guarantee that I become the poster child for liberals who want to do just want (sic) to distribute the blame to someone else, as you say.”
Parts of the lawsuit were initially redacted due to a federal judge’s order requiring that the information be kept confidential unless the producing party agreed that the information could be disclosed. Connecticut has since obtained an agreement to release these communications.
Richard Sackler testimony
The unredacted lawsuit also cites a deposition taken in March of Richard Sackler that it said exemplifies his and the other defendants’ “callous indifference to the truth of their deceptions and the public health impact.”
He gave the deposition for a group of “Multidistrict Litigation” cases, consolidated in a federal court in Cleveland, involving about 1,700 cities and counties across the country that have sued Purdue and other opioid makers.
In the deposition, Richard Sackler repeatedly said “I don’t recall” when asked questions such as whether the company had ever tried to quantify the number of deaths resulting from OxyContin prescriptions.
He gave a more expansive answer when he was asked whether Purdue should have conducted — before OxyContin was approved in 1995 by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration — studies on addiction rates following treatment.
“This was not part of the approved plan for studies that would lead, if successful, to approval,” Richard Sackler said. “With the fullness of time, maybe that would have been a good idea. Maybe it would have prevented some — some misfortune. But that’s speculative.”
He expounded on the 2001 emails — saying that he “probably was quite emotional” when he wrote them — according to additional testimony excerpts, which were provided by a Sackler spokesman and not included in the lawsuit.
“I’ve gotten a lot more information about addiction, in general ... or opioid addiction, in particular, and of course, my views have evolved and changed,” Richard Sackler also said in the deposition. “At that time, I was very concerned that the balance had been struck by the FDA between the benefits and risks of strong opioids might be upset, perhaps with terrible consequence for patients and doctors, who wanted to treat them.”
Richard Sackler was also deposed in 2015, as part of Kentucky’s then-lawsuit against Purdue, in what has been described as the only time — not including Connecticut’s lawsuit — that a Sackler family member had been questioned under oath about OxyContin marketing.
Health-and-science news site STAT waged a long legal battle to unseal the 337-page deposition. It remained under seal, but ProPublica recently obtained a copy of the document.
Other lawsuits, including Massachusetts’ complaint, have also accused Richard Sackler of instigating deceptive opioid marketing.
At a launch party for OxyContin, which went on the market in
1996, he predicted a “blizzard of prescriptions that will bury the competition,” according to the Massachusetts suit.
Richard Sackler comprises one of eight Sackler family members who own Purdue and are named in Connecticut’s, Massachusetts’ and New York’s lawsuits. The others are Beverly Sackler, David Sackler, Ilene Sackler Lefcourt, Jonathan Sackler, Kathe Sackler, Mortimer D.A. Sackler and Theresa Sackler.
Since 1979, Richard Sackler has owned a home in Greenwich, according to Connecticut’s lawsuit. He now lives in Connecticut and Florida.
As the litigation has burgeoned against Purdue — more than
1,000 municipal, county and state lawsuits have been filed — Richard Sackler and the other Sackler defendants have resigned from Purdue’s board. The last of the Sacklers on the panel stepped down at the beginning of this year, according to the company.
Aside from the Sackler emails, the unredacted complaint is largely similar to the previous version filed April 22.
The complaint includes a litany of other allegations focused on Purdue’s opioid marketing and also accuses the Sackler defendants of trying to avoid personal liability through hundreds of millions of dollars in fraudulent transfers.
Tong has reiterated his intent to take the case to trial, despite Oklahoma reaching in late March a $270 million settlement with Purdue to resolve a similar lawsuit.
Oklahoma Attorney General Mike Hunter “made a judgment that $270 million was the right deal for the people of Oklahoma. It would not be the right deal for the people of Connecticut,” Tong said in a recent interview. “In my view, this is a national public health crisis, and the damages are extensive and significant and go far beyond any dollar (amount) I can put on it right now. They go far beyond $270 million.”
A prospective Purdue bankruptcy would not deter the state’s push for accountability, Tong has also said.
Meanwhile, the Sacklers have indicated that they want to avoid a trial. An attorney for four of the Sackler defendants has said that her clients would prefer to settle and reach a “global resolution” of the pending litigation.
“Depending on how widely these statements in these emails from Richard Sackler are publicized, they could impact the context of a settlement,” said Robert Bird, a professor business law at the University of Connecticut. “And if presented to a jury, these statements could certainly inflame the sentiments of a jury against the Sacklers and Purdue.”
Purdue Pharma is headquartered at 201 Tresser Blvd. in downtown Stamford.