Editorial: OxyContin settlement doesn’t begin to make up for the harm Purdue Pharma has caused

OxyContin pills, a powerful and addictive painkiller made by Purdue Pharma.
Purdue Pharma has sold an estimated $30-billion worth of OxyContin, a powerful and addictive painkiller, since its introduction in 1996.
(Los Angeles Times)

The prescription opioid crisis that has taken well over 100,000 American lives and ruined hundreds of thousands more wasn’t just an accident of time or the byproduct of a dysfunctional society. It was in good part the deliberate result of unethical and occasionally illegal machinations by the pharmaceutical industry, particularly by Purdue Pharma, which paid kickbacks and willfully misled physicians and the public to boost sales of its addictive signature drug, OxyContin.

The company has now agreed to plead guilty to criminal charges in a federal settlement that doesn’t even begin to make up for the harm Purdue has caused. It takes back hardly any of the billions the company has made while addicting a nation. In fact, despite Purdue’s admission of guilt and a settlement purportedly worth $8.3 billion, the agreement is a whole lot less than it seems.

For the record:

5:45 a.m. Oct. 22, 2020An earlier version of this editorial incorrectly stated that Purdue Pharma had pleaded guilty to criminal charges. The Justice Department announced Wednesday that the company has agreed to plead guilty, but had not yet done so.

The actual payout is expected to be a fraction of that size. The U.S. Justice Department agreed not to seek more than $225 million of the $2-billion criminal forfeiture called for in the deal if the company reorganizes as a public benefit entity overseen by state and local government. The government will probably get pennies on the dollar for the rest of the settlement, as the company is in bankruptcy court and the list of creditors is long.


Meanwhile, the Sackler family, which owns Purdue, is contributing $225 million of its fortune to the current agreement. The family says the public-benefit company would eventually pay $10 billion to settle the many other lawsuits it faces from state and local governments ― but only over time, from future sales of OxyContin and an antidote drug, along with the proceeds from the sale of another Sackler-owned company.

This isn’t the justice that a nation battered by opioid addiction needed.

Purdue reaped an estimated $30 billion in sales from OxyContin, and the Sacklers withdrew more than $10 billion from the company’s assets over the past decade, according to an audit performed as part of bankruptcy proceedings. The public has a right to know whether the family is escaping a realistic accounting of what it holds and what it owes, both to victims and to the state and local governments that have borne the heavy cost of curbing the crisis.

The federal agreement does not exclude the possibility of criminal charges against members of the family or executives and employees of the company; the Justice Department says it is investigating the possibility, and it must. The evidence compiled so far, in internal emails and other documents, is dismaying.

There is a lot to answer for here. The current agreement, however, doesn’t begin to make the needed restitution for the human and economic toll Purdue Pharma inflicted on this country.