OPINION: Purdue Pharma must be held accountable


Keith Rudd

In 2010, after the BP oil spill that released 4 million barrels of oil into the Gulf of Mexico, the company hired a public relations firm named Purple Strategies to help contain the fallout. For months, we saw ads on TV promising BP was going to fix its environmental damage, how it was taking ownership for the spill and ensuring the mistake would not happen again.

Now, Purdue Pharma has hired Purple Strategies, and its a deep history in damage control for companies, to help pick up the pieces after it filed for bankruptcy last week.The terms of the bankruptcy would help the company settle thousands of lawsuits, while ensuring the Sackler family, who own Purdue Pharma, will see no personal loss. The lawsuits were brought against the company by state and local officials, including North Carolina Attorney General Josh Stein, for the pharmaceutical giant’s part in the ongoing opioid crisis. 

Purdue Pharma is best known as the maker of the opioid painkiller OxyContin, which was introduced in 1996. After its release, the company began an aggressive marketing campaign, reaching out directly to doctors and offering them trips to pain management seminars and opportunities for paid speaking events to get them to prescribe OxyContin to their patients. 

OxyContin is an opioid painkiller, affecting the receptors in the brain. Like heroin, OxyContin blocks pain receptors and excites dopamine neurons, creating a feeling of euphoria. OxyContin and all other opioids have a very high potential for abuse, leading to an epidemic all over the country. 

This is not Purdue Pharma’s first run-in with the law. In 2007, the company pleaded guilty to a charge of illegally marketing OxyContin by downplaying the risk of addiction and paid a $635.6 million fine.

The Sackler family also has a history of blaming the people who have become addicted to their medications. In February 2001, Richard Sackler, then president of Purdue Pharma, wrote in an email: “We have to hammer on the abusers in every way possible. They are the culprits and the problem. They are reckless criminals,” according to a civil complaint

Purdue Pharma has repeatedly tried to downplay its position in the epidemic, using misleading statistics to make its impact appear less severe. The company has argued that it only distributed 3.3% of all opioid painkillers between 2006 and 2012. When one looks at the amount and potency of the pills distributed, Purdue’s market contribution comes to 16%

It’s not that Purdue Pharma is just producing addictive pills. We don’t give the same attention to Actavis, a maker of generic oxycodone, just OxyContin without the name, or to Shire Pharmaceuticals, who makes Adderall, another prescription with high abuse potential. 

We need to demand those in power hold Purdue Pharma accountable, much like how North Carolina’s attorney general has sued the company and individual Sackler family members.

This is an issue that hits incredibly close to home for many of us. Watauga County received over 10 million painkillers between 2006 and 2012. My home county, Buncombe, received over 73 million. Appalachia is the ground zero for this epidemic, and we need to stand up for those who need it, because, clearly, these pharmaceutical companies have no regard for the humans behind their profits.