For years, Purdue Pharma has been plagued by investigations and lawsuits into its marketing of OxyContin, a highly addictive prescription medication that has been linked to America’s growing opioid epidemic. While the company and several executives pleaded guilty in 2007 to criminal charges, legal actions against — and criticisms of — certain members of the Sackler family, which controls Purdue, continue to mount.
Late last month, Purdue settled the first of more than 1,600 pending lawsuits, agreeing to pay $270 million in Oklahoma to fund addiction research and treatment, in addition to covering legal fees. A full $75 million of that settlement will come from the family of the late Mortimer and Raymond Sackler, brothers who took control of the Purdue Frederick Company in 1952 and incorporated present-day Purdue Pharma L.P. in 1991. (Relatives of Arthur Sackler, a third brother who also held a stake in Purdue that was sold to his brothers after he died in 1987, maintain that they’ve never profited from the sale of OxyContin, though a recently discovered court document suggests there has been at least some indirect benefit.)
Lawsuits filed in both Massachusetts and New York allege that the Sacklers continued to push for the sale of OxyContin long after its risk for addiction was known — and that they saw opportunity to capitalize on that problem by offering addiction treatment medication as well. According to Massachusetts filing, the Sackler family knew that the medication was being abused by at least 1999. In 2001, the filing states, Richard Sackler, the son of Mortimer Sackler, wrote in an email to staff that those taking opioids were the problem. “We had to hammer on the abusers in every way possible,” he wrote. Even before that, a 2015 deposition of Richard Sackler revealed, the billionaire supported a decision to keep doctors under the impression that OxyContin was weaker than morphine.
In 2014, according to internal documents noted in the Massachusetts lawsuit, Purdue planned, through what it dubbed “Project Tango,” to move into the addiction treatment space to sell suboxone and the overdose antidote Narcan. Members of the Sackler family have called for the lawsuit to be scrapped, arguing that it contains “misleading and inflammatory allegations,” and their lawyers insist that none of the documents show “an individual director engaging in any unlawful conduct regarding the sale of prescription opioids or ordering anyone else to do so.” In a statement, Massachusetts Attorney General Maura Healy said the Sacklers’ motions “are an attempt to avoid accountability.”
Another lawsuit in Connecticut, where Purdue is headquartered, names both the company and its owners. “The defendants awarded bonuses and prizes to sales representatives who generated the most opioid prescriptions,” the suit claims.
Outside of pharmaceuticals, the Sackler name is prominent in the art world, with family members donating to institutions including the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, the Tate Modern in London, and the Harvard Art Museums in Cambridge, Massachusetts. Facing pressure from activists, museums have made varying decisions regarding their donation policies. Even where money stems from Arthur’s branch of the family, activists argue that the marketing techniques he developed were used by his relatives and other Purdue executives to sell its painkillers.
Also in the news:
• On Tuesday, a fire broke out at the KMCO chemical plant in Crosby, Texas, marking the second significant blaze at a chemical plant near Houston within three weeks. One person died and two others sustained critical injuries. Firefighters were able to put out the flames later that day, while respondents continued to monitor the plant for hot spots. Rachel Moreno, the Harris County Fire Marshal’s Office spokesperson, said the company thinks a transfer line carrying isobutelyne ignited the fire. This blaze follows another emergency in late March, when 11 of the 15 tank farms at a petrochemical holding facility caught on fire. “Texas is failing to protect people from chemical fires and explosions and rogue releases of toxic air pollution. It is untenable,” said Elena Craft, a senior director at the Environmental Defense Fund, in a written statement. “The Texas Commission on Environmental Quality must inspect every single facility every single year. That should be a bare minimum.” (Houston Chronicle)
• Jo Cameron felt only “a tickle” during childbirth, never needed painkillers after surgery, and can eat Scotch bonnet chili peppers — one of the hottest peppers in the world — without feeling more than a “pleasant glow.” After studying the 71-year-old woman’s DNA to find out why, researchers found a new gene that plays a role in humans’ capability to feel pain and anxiety. Cameron has a deletion in a previously undiscovered gene called FAAH-OUT, which affects the circulation of natural painkillers in her body. The researchers said the discovery of this gene could be a step toward the development of a new type of pain treatment that does not contain opioids. Although any products of this research are pretty far out, so to speak, Stephen Waxman, a neurologist at Yale not involved with the study, said the potential is definitely there. “I’m reasonably confident that the lessons we are learning from the genes involved in pain will lead to the development of an entirely new class of pain medications,” he said. (The New York Times)
• On Wednesday, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) announced an “uptick in voluntary reports” from e-cigarette users who describe experiencing seizures. Through submissions to the agency’s Safety Reporting Portal, along with calls to poison control centers, the FDA counted 35 reported cases of seizures mentioning the use of e-cigarettes since 2010. But Commissioner Scott Gottlieb says the agency does not yet know what the relationship is and states that some seizures might be coincidental. (Some people had seizures previously, and others admitted to using other substances on top of vaping.) Simply inhaling too much nicotine might cause seizures, but it seems unlikely, experts say. “I think exposure (skin contact or oral) in children, or vaping exposure in younger individuals (adolescents through which we’ve seen a large increase in e-cig use), might be accounting for the increase in these seizures,” said Peter Chai, a medical toxicologist at Brigham and Women’s Hospital in Boston, in an email to The Verge. For now, the health care community is watching for more cases. (The Verge)
• A paleontologist made an unprecedented discovery that sheds light on what the prehistoric world might have looked like the day a giant asteroid hit earth 66 million years ago, playing a role in the extinction of the dinosaurs, according to a paper published in PNAS this week. Robert DePalma, who is working toward his Ph.D. at the University of Kansas, began excavating a site near Bowman, North Dakota in 2012. On the site, DePalma found a chaotic mess of fossils, including whole fish rammed into trees or impaled on one another, which DePalma argues is evidence of an impact-related flood or tsunami-like wave. DePalma’s site may show the impact of the asteroid to within minutes, he told The New Yorker. Some other scientists remain skeptical about the findings, however, as not all of the claims in the article appear in the PNAS paper itself. Thomas Tobin, a geologist with the University of Alabama in Tuscaloosa, told Science the paper was packed with information on a variety of subjects and would take a while for the research community to process. “I hope this is all legit, “ he said. “I’m just not 100 percent convinced yet.” (The New Yorker, Science)
• NASA administrator Jim Bridenstine called India’s recent anti-satellite missile test “unacceptable” on Monday, saying it created an explosion of space debris that put the International Space Station at risk. India’s successful intercept of a low-orbiting satellite had been hailed as a watershed moment by Prime Minister Narendra Modi, who said it marked the nation’s arrival as a space power. But NASA estimates that the explosion created 400 pieces of debris, at least 24 of which were launched to altitudes high enough to reach the space station, increasing the chances of space junk hitting the spacecraft by 44 percent. The NASA chief stressed that the astronauts currently aboard the space station are safe: The fragments are in a low-enough orbit and, in time, will fall back to Earth and burn up in the atmosphere. In the meantime, the spacecraft can be maneuvered out of harm’s way if needed. But Bridenstine says the test sets a dangerous example. “When one country does it, then other countries feel like they have to do it, as well.” The U.S. has shot its own satellites out of orbit on at least two occasions, once in 1985 and again in 2008. (NPR)
• And finally: Direct-to-consumer health startups — like Hims, Roman, and Kick — purport to save people the time, expense, and embarrassment of a trip to the doctor’s office by allowing them to order prescription medication online. But as several doctors and health experts told The New York Times this week, the business model is rife with health and safety concerns. Since users self-diagnose, send limited health information through online platforms, and may have minimal interaction with prescribing physicians, they may not receive treatment for more serious conditions underlying their immediate symptoms. In some instances, patients were prescribed medication for off-label uses or received their drugs without proper usage instructions. To remain within states’ regulatory frameworks, the companies are positioned only as distributors and the prescribing doctors are employed by separate health companies, but the exact nature of the relationship between these entities and the startups is often murky. Legal experts state that federal and state regulations for the marketing and sale of pharmaceuticals have not kept pace with the rise web-based medicine, and should be updated to better protect the public. (The New York Times)