Corporate Responsibility in the American Opioid Epidemic

By Kimberly Tuttle (CMC’19)

On average, 130 Americans die every day from opioid-related overdoses. America’s opioid epidemic is a severe national crisis that affects not only public health, but social and economic welfare as well. The Centers for Disease Control (CDC) estimates that opioid misuse alone costs the United States over $78 billion a year, including costs accrued to healthcare, lost productivity, addiction treatment, and criminal justice. While the opioid epidemic was spurred by a number of factors, the role that Purdue Pharma and other such pharmaceutical companies played—providing false reassurances to medical communities about the addictive qualities of opioids—is indisputable.

Purdue Pharma created OxyContin in 1996 and aggressively advertised the drug as a non-addictive pain killer for several years. A Purdue Pharma commercial advertised the drug as the company’s “best, strongest pain medication” and assured listeners that “the rate of addiction amongst pain patients that are treated by doctors is much less than 1 percent.”

In addition to massive public marketing campaigns, Purdue Pharma utilized a database that compiled sophisticated marketing data and tracked physicians around the U.S. with the highest pain medication prescribing rates. With this information, Purdue Pharma could identify the highest and lowest prescribers of particular drugs in a single zip code. Between 1996 and 2000, Purdue Pharma increased its internal sales force team by 100 percent and conducted more than 40 national pain-management and speaker-training conferences in regions that were highly-concentrated with heavy prescribers.

Soon after its introduction into the American market, OxyContin was discovered to be one of the most pervasive opioid drugs. The drug is meant to be used to treat pain from cancer, trauma, or major surgery, but its wide misuse has been proven to cause severe addiction, overdose, and death.

Due to the fast-spreading OxyContin addiction in America, Purdue Pharma was subject to an investigation in 2006. It was found that in as early as 1997, Purdue Pharma knew of OxyContin’s addictive qualities and widespread misuse. Internal Purdue Pharma reports noted OxyContin as “the hottest thing on the streets” and recognized the inflated street value of the drug. Yet, the company neglected to formulate a solution to this problem, or even recognize the misuse of the drug as a concern.

The prosecutors going after Purdue Pharma recommended that the top three executives of the company be indicted on felony charges of conspiracy to defraud the U.S., yet the parties settled in 2007 on a misdemeanor for “misbranding” OxyContin. The company executives were then required to pay a fine of $634.5 million and perform community service.

A misdemeanor charge soon proved to be inadequate in the efforts to slow the role of OxyContin in America’s increasing drug problem. The number of opioid prescriptions in the U.S. continued to steadily rise and in 2012, OxyContin represented nearly 30 percent of the entire painkiller market in America.

The current scale of the opioid epidemic is unprecedented and deeply disturbing. In the past two decades, over 200,000 Americans have died from opioid overdoses. People have as such aggressively come after Purdue Pharma for its role in the perpetuation of opioid addictions in America. There have been nearly 2,000 lawsuits brought against Purdue Pharma and the company is now considering bankruptcy.

Cities, states, and private parties are seeking justice in several forms. Various cities are suing Purdue Pharma to recover costs from the financial harm the company personally inflicted on American cities. Many of these lawsuits rest on the grounds of consumer protection laws, and argue that the company falsely denied or downplayed the addiction risk associated with OxyContin while overstating the benefits. Purdue Pharma is also facing public nuisance lawsuits, which are a class of common law offenses in which the injury, loss, or damage is suffered by the public in general rather than an individual in particular.

Purdue Pharma continues to deny the allegations declared in the lawsuits by hundreds of cities, states, and various parties. Many of the cases are proceeding in various state courts, though most of the cases have been consolidated in a federal multidistrict litigation court in Ohio. A New York prosecutor compares the scale of the cases against Purdue Pharma to the litigation against the tobacco industry that resulted in a historic $246 billion settlement in 1998.

Purdue Pharma, in the wake of the massive financial compensation it could owe, has explored bankruptcy filing. According to legal experts, filing for bankruptcy would likely result in the freezing of current lawsuits against the company and a shift of the cases into bankruptcy court. This process ensures that Purdue Pharma could maintain its value while getting additional time to negotiate with each entity it owes money to. Regardless of its ultimate decision, Purdue Pharma is finally facing the consequences for the part it played in America’s opioid epidemic.


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