The Attorney General of Massachusetts, Maura Healey, has brought a lawsuit against Purdue Pharma and its owner, the Sackler family, for promoting their opioid drugs without alerting the public to the dangers of these opioid-based medications. This is the first instance of a state bringing suit against Purdue Pharma. The marketing and distribution of the products of Purdue Pharma, including Oxycontin, led to the current nationwide epidemic of addiction that began with doctors prescribing these drugs, rather than through illicit drug trafficking. Since the year 2000, hundreds of thousands of Americans have died of these prescription-drug-related overdoses.
Citing information extracted from internal communications, Healey’s suit alleges that the Sacklers made “billions of dollars” despite full knowledge that the drugs were causing widespread addiction and fatal overdose. In early arguments in the case, Healey provided evidence that Purdue Pharma and the Sacklers co-opted Massachusetts universities and hospitals by providing them with program funding in expectation that the latters’ endorsements would give cover to the concerns about addiction expressed in such respected journals as The New England Journal of Medicine as early as 2003, one year after Mass. General Hospital (MGH)’s chief of anesthesia publicly defended the Sacklers’ funding of pain-education curricula and other such sponsored programs. In 2009, MGH accepted another $3 million from the Sacklers, two years after Purdue Pharma and three executives pleaded guilty to federal charges of deceptive marketing of Oxycontin.
The case illustrates the extent to which profits are placed before people in some areas of U.S. healthcare, and the power of money and marketing to affect the ethics, research, policies, and programs of institutions that are presumed to safeguard the health of the citizenry.
The recent filing of these disclosures is expected to be the first of many in connection with this case at law, which is ongoing. Provisional data provided by the National Center for Disease Control indicates that, in 2017 alone, more than 49,000 people lost their lives to opioid-related overdoses. The death rate has since been climbing due to the increase in illicit trafficking of drugs like fentanyl.
Clinical social workers often work with individuals and families who are victims of addiction. What has been your experience, in hospitals, universities, and agencies? What is being done in you state to curb the epidemic, bring about prevention, and save lives?