New York sues Purdue Pharma’s Sackler family over opioid epidemic

“The launch of OxyContin tablets will be followed by a blizzard of prescriptions,” Purdue’s then-Chief Executive Richard Sackler said at the drug’s 1996 launch party, according to the lawsuit.
“The launch of OxyContin tablets will be followed by a blizzard of prescriptions,” Purdue’s then-Chief Executive Richard Sackler said at the drug’s 1996 launch party, according to the lawsuit.
(Toby Talbot / Associated Press)

The billionaire owners of Purdue Pharma were sued by New York state Thursday in a complaint accusing them of triggering a U.S. addiction epidemic with their marketing of the Oxycontin painkiller, two days after the company agreed to pay $270 million to settle similar claims by Oklahoma.

The amended complaint adds the embattled Sackler family to the state’s lawsuit against Purdue and its biggest competitors and distributors, including Johnson & Johnson and Cardinal Health Inc. New York says the defendants pushed doctors to issue prescriptions, lied about the risk of addiction and ignored red flags from suspicious pharmacies.

“Simply put, they put profit over patients,” New York Atty. Gen. Letitia James said Thursday at a news conference in Manhattan announcing the new claims. The Sacklers “profited off the suffering, the death of New Yorkers,” she said.

The suit in New York state court, which James said is the most extensive of its kind in the United States, adds to the potentially massive legal liability that has led Purdue to threaten to file for bankruptcy protection. Meanwhile, states and local governments have targeted the Sackler family’s wealth in an effort to recoup billions of dollars spent on the social costs of opioid addiction. More than 1,600 suits against opioid makers have been consolidated in federal court in Ohio, and other cases are pending in state courts.

“One of the manufacturing defendants — Purdue — undoubtedly tipped the first domino,” James, a Democrat who took office in January, said in the complaint. “The others quickly went in on the scheme to expand the opioids market through a predatory campaign of lies, payoffs and high-pressure sales tactics.”


The Sackler family denied the allegations.

“Expanding this baseless lawsuit to include former directors of Purdue Pharma is a misguided attempt to place blame where it does not belong for a complex public health crisis,” the family said in a statement Thursday. “We strongly deny these allegations, which are inconsistent with the factual record, and will vigorously defend against them.”

James said she was particularly concerned about Cardinal Health, which she described as the biggest distributor of opioid drugs in New York since 2010.

Cardinal Health has sent a total of 780 million oxycodone pills to pharmacies in the state, James said, including pharmacies the company repeatedly flagged for suspicious orders. Cardinal Health also disregarded the concerns of its own employees and failed to properly train compliance personnel or sales representatives, she said.

Cardinal Health reported nearly $130 billion in annual revenue last year, James said.

In a statement, Cardinal Health said it “cares deeply about the opioid epidemic and shares the judgment of top policymakers and many others that too many prescriptions have been written for too many opioid pills over the past decade. Cardinal Health will continue, as we have for over a decade, to make a meaningful difference by raising awareness about the dangers of over-prescribing.”

‘Blizzard of prescriptions’

James also accused the Sacklers of attempting to “hide the vast fortunes” they earned from the alleged scheme in order to keep it from being clawed back through legal actions or investigations.

“In an attempt to shield these fortunes from the families of loved ones who have been killed by their products, we allege that the family has illicitly transferred funds from Purdue to personal trusts so they are potentially outside the reach of law enforcement and our efforts to seek restitution and penalties,” James said.

Among the details in James’ 258-page complaint are quoted remarks from the 1996 launch party for OxyContin, where former Purdue Chief Executive Richard Sackler allegedly asked the audience to imagine a series of natural disasters, such as earthquakes, erupting volcanoes and blizzards.

“The launch of OxyContin tablets will be followed by a blizzard of prescriptions that will bury the competition,” Sackler said, according to the complaint. “The prescription blizzard will be so deep, dense and white.”

James calls the defendants “unrepentant” and lays out how each of the individuals and companies allegedly participated in a scheme that ballooned out of control. The defendants have denied wrongdoing.

New York will seek financial penalties from the family and the disgorgement of “wrongfully obtained profits,” she said at the news conference.

Other cases

The Sacklers have also been sued by a group of more than 500 cities and counties, filed in New York and Massachusetts. The family has denied any wrongdoing in both cases, but the publicity has led some in the art world to protest museums that have received donations from the Sacklers.

About 400,000 Americans have died since 1999 from opioid-related overdoses, with an additional 130 perishing each day, Massachusetts said in its suit.

The Oklahoma settlement by Purdue and the Sacklers came two months before the scheduled start of a trial against the company, Johnson & Johnson, Teva Pharmaceutical Industries Ltd. and other opioid makers. The trial is set for May against companies other than Purdue.

The drugmaker defendants in New York’s case:

J&J, based in New Brunswick, N.J., and its Janssen Pharmaceuticals subsidiary. Mallinckrodt, an Irish company headquartered in Staines-Upon-Thames, Britain. Endo International, with global headquarters in Dublin. Teva Pharmaceutical Industries Ltd., with headquarters in Petah Tikva, Israel, and units Cephalon Inc. and Actavis Pharma Inc. Allergan, which is based in Dublin.

The distributor defendants:

McKesson Corp., based in San Francisco. AmerisourceBergen Corp., based in Chesterbrook, Pa. Cardinal Health Inc., based in Dublin, Ohio. Rochester Drug Cooperative Inc., based in Rochester, N.Y.