Representative photo: ksrecomm/Flickr, CC BY 2.0.
Last month, the pharmaceutical giant Purdue Pharma pleaded guilty to charges related to the sale and marketing of the painkiller OxyContin. Even by the standards of corporate malpractice, the company’s behaviour, as detailed in a now-concluded federal investigation, is almost too sickening for words. Facing declining sales, it employed every tactic imaginable to skirt public health regulations and ensure that its flagship painkiller was sold and distributed as widely as possible: from aggressively marketing the highly addictive drug to offering kickbacks to doctors and defrauding federal health agencies. According to a press release issued by the Department of Justice, the penalties imposed on Purdue – which include a criminal fine of $3.5 billion and another $2 billion in criminal forfeiture – are the harshest ever levied against a pharmaceutical manufacturer.
Nevertheless, they probably offer little comfort to the countless people affected by the opioid epidemic, which kills more than one hundred Americans every single day and has claimed the lives of over 450,000 since 1999 according to the Centres for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). OxyContin, in particular, has played a decisive role in the crisis, having been introduced in the mid-1990s as a nonaddictive wonder drug. As the CDC explains, the rising rate of prescriptions of opioids that followed was only the first stage in what became a spiralling cascade of addictions and overdose deaths, subsequent waves seeing the proliferation of other opioids like heroin and fentanyl. “I’m a huge believer,” Ohio man Jake Bradshaw, who struggled with addiction after his first encounter with opioids at seventeen, told the New York Times, “that if we had not seen OxyContin in this area, we would not have a heroin and fentanyl epidemic.”
Considering the scale of its crimes, the penalties meted out to Purdue Pharma look like a pale imitation of justice. Even as the walls closed in and legal proceedings threatened the company, its owners – members of the impossibly wealthy Sackler family – somehow managed to get even richer and will be paying a paltry fine relative to the scale of their fortune. As the settlement was concluded, local media reported that CEO Craig Landau will still receive a performance bonus of nearly $3 million. Though nothing prevents the federal government from pursuing additional investigations against the company (which is still dealing with other litigation), one can only speculate with minimal optimism about the future.