By DON HARMON
In the New York Times we read: “Purdue Pharma Pleads Guilty to Criminal Charges for Opioid Sales.” The Justice Department announced an $8 billion settlement with the makers of OxyContin, for the central role that this corporation and its aggressive marketing played in America’s public health crisis — no, not COVID-19 — but the overuse of pain-killing opioids killing more than 450,000 Americans since 1999. Purdue Pharma makes pain medicines such as hydrocodone, oxycodone, fentanyl, and codeine. Steve Miller, chairman of the company board, stated this cliché: “Purdue deeply regrets and accepts responsibility for the misconduct detailed by the Department of Justice in the agreed statement of facts.”
Hurray! So maybe we don’t live in a “failed state” after all. The people scored one against Big Pharma! White-coated Purdue has blood on its hands. Hundreds of thousands have suffered and died in the name of profit. And the Purdue profiteers have to pay. Isn’t this a victory, a bit of good news in this tragic pandemic year of 2020? The complex two-sided answer: a tiny, limited yes and a powerful no.
Yes, Purdue Pharma admitted their wrongdoing in court, and paying $8 billion is not pocket change. That is a precedent that can be exploited for the good, for the benefit of the victims, past, present and future. But the company has sought bankruptcy court protection to ensure their right to make profits, so this federal settlement, and the final payout, will have to wait. There are thousands of local and state lawsuits yet to be adjudicated, each complainant, each creditor, standing in line for a redress of a righteous grievance. Creditors in bankruptcy, typically, end up only collecting pennies on the dollar.
The human cost
One can get lost in the relatively abstract equation of lawsuits, creditors and billions of dollars, and thus lose sight of the thousands who have suffered. There is a small, but feisty, movement of hard-working Americans who are fighting back.
In a letter to Attorney General William Barr, a coalition of relatives of opioid victims said the agreement was premature and too little. Emily Walden’s son began taking OxyContin during his pain-filled, hospitalized childhood, and died of an overdose at the age of 25. Since her son’s death, Ms. Walden has dedicated herself to seeking justice and is now the chairwoman of the Fed Up! Coalition.
In New Jersey, Lora Goldwater recalled the agony of watching her son struggle with an opioid addiction that began with OxyContin in college and then leading to heroin. “I’m lucky because my son did not die,” she said. “But between the ages of 18 and 25, he must have gone to at least half a dozen funerals, if not more, of people who did not make it to the other side.”
Twenty years ago, Jake Bradshaw was a high school student in Ohio, where Oxycontin pills were ubiquitous at parties. “In a very short amount of time, 30 percent of my class was addicted to a hard opiate that’s pretty much like heroin,” he said. “And no one knew how to deal with it.”
“The D.O.J. failed,” said Maura Healey, the Massachusetts attorney general. “Justice in this case requires exposing the truth and holding the perpetrators accountable, not rushing a settlement to beat an election. I am not done with Purdue and the Sacklers, and I will never sell out the families who have been calling for justice for so long.” Purdue calculated they could get a better deal under Trump. No jail time is included, only a paltry fine of $225 million against the principal owner, the Sackler family, whose net worth is estimated to be $13 billion.
One of the chief negotiators representing thousands of local governments revealed the real meaning of this deceptive agreement: “You don’t maximize the value of the Purdue asset if you destroy the product totally.”Aha! So the OxyContin product, containing oxycodone which is as potent as morphine and is highly addictive and easily abused, will continue to be manufactured by a private, for-profit operation, whether it is Purdue or a new company that emerges from bankruptcy. Purdue will only pay a few billion as restitution into a “public trust.” So much for justice and fair play.
How that actually plays out — and who will be the beneficiaries of the $8 billion — is yet to be determined by the machinations of corporate and government lawyers. To be sure, the high-priced attorneys will get their money. The patients and families who suffered? Not very much.
Defending the status quo
To keep the company solvent and able to pay the penalty, this sweetheart settlement authorizes Purdue to continue sales of OxyContin and addiction treatment medications like buprenorphine and naloxone, which the company estimates to be worth at least $8 billion per year. Note that Purdue makes big money on both ends — first the addiction through the use of OxyContin, then treatment for the addiction with naloxone. For Purdue Pharma, this is corporate business as usual.
This is not a settlement that will result in “a public benefit trust” as some naive experts assert. If it were really “a public benefit trust” then Purdue Pharma and the Sackler family would be liquidated — fined and penalized out of existence for their immorality and deception — and the resulting billions would go to the families who have suffered and for education against this scourge. If that happened, it would send a clear message to Big Pharma that our government is serious about protecting consumers, that Johnson & Johnson, or Pfizer, or GlaxoSmithKline, or Merck, or Eli Lilly is next. No, that is not happening. And neither will it happen under the soon-to-be President Biden. Instead, this settlement illustrates the cozy, symbiotic relationship between government and business.
In our capitalist Big Pharma world, this settlement defends the status quo of Purdue Pharma’s right to maximum profits, unfettered by the tragic murder of half a million Americans. Big Pharma one, regular folks 450,000. Low score wins.
This immoral, sordid game is far from over. In 2004, the production and sale of generic opioid medications skyrocketed when federal courts rescinded the patent which Purdue Pharma held on OxyContin. The makers of generic drugs — Mallinckrodt, Par Pharmaceutical, and Teva Pharmaceuticals — quickly jumped into the action with their version of oxycodone. Today these three companies control 88% of the American opioid market, while Purdue controls a mere 3%.
Purdue’s basic argument is powerful — you need pain relief! — as all of us know who have been sidelined with excruciating pain. People have back pain, cancer pain, arthritic pain, not to mention the late-capitalism economic pain of “no job, no income, no money for rent or mortgage” that millions are now experiencing under the COVID-19 cloud.
So never mind that opioids can take over your life, make you forget your troubles, take your breath away and finally, make your heart skip a beat or two or three. Big Pharma’s answer: OxyContin! As the Purdue marketing brochure asserts, “Fear should not stand in the way of relief of your pain.” And another quote: “The single most important thing for you to remember is that you are the authority on your pain. Nobody else feels it for you so nobody else can describe how much it hurts, or when it feels better.” Yes, Purdue — with hands outstretched to give and then receive — supports your right to self-determination.
Starting in 1996, Purdue first marketed OxyContin as treatment for cancer pain, but the company soon discovered that there was more money to be made by recommending the drug for “pain syndromes,” including osteoarthritis and back pain. The company pursued an aggressive marketing scheme, buying more than $18 million worth of advertising in major medical journals, touting the efficacy of OxyContin. Millions of dollars were poured into a website called “Partners in Pain.” Purdue sales agents made thousands of visits to general practice doctors and others who had little training or experience using potent opioids. All the while Purdue repeated the big lie that OxyContin was “non-habit forming.”
In Florida in 2002, the media reported that legal prescription opioids overtook heroin and cocaine as the leading killers. Purdue responded to this negative publicity that “advances in the treatment of pain should not be limited or reversed because some people illegally divert, abuse or misuse these drugs,” therefore blaming the victims for being irresponsible abusers. And so the marketing continued and the money flooded in.
But the deaths continued also, so much so that in federal court in 2007, Purdue pleaded guilty to felony charges of “misbranding” OxyContin “with the intent to defraud or mislead” and paid $600 million in fines, still only a pittance in contrast to their billions in profits.
Protection for the consumer?
Under both Democratic and Republican administrations, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) — which was first created to guard us from profit-hungry corporations — has inexorably become a useful tool for these same companies. One conjures up the image of two lovers — Big Pharma and the federal government — strolling hand in hand down the grassy path, oblivious to the fields of gravestones that they trod upon.
Against all odds, the website stopdrugdeath.com is waging the good fight to educate consumers and to win concessions from the international profiteers. The website reports that in response to steadily increasing OxyContin abuse and deaths, Congressional hearings were held in 2001 and 2002. The FDA endorsed the following labeling information: “Delayed absorption, as provided by OxyContin tablets is believed to reduce the abuse liability of a drug.” Say what? Quoting from the website: “The FDA statement provided a strong endorsement for what physicians were looking for: a new, safer drug they could more comfortably prescribe to pain patients.” Delayed absorption? Since its inception, Oxycontin has been ground into a fine powder in order to overcome the controlled release feature. Purdue knew that, and so did the FDA.
Hence the widely-used name “Big Pharma.” If the FDA were doing its job, we wouldn’t call them Big Pharma.
To return to the Purdue settlement details, the court’s primary goal is not to address the pain and suffering of the OxyContin victims, but instead ensure that this company will continue to be profitable. Of course, those who were victimized will get a token something, but nothing close to what they deserve. After all, our government has to go through the pretense that regular people can win in court, that pain-suffering Davids can defeat the pill-mill Goliaths. Our pseudo-democracy runs on the premise that we are equal under the law, that we are a nation of laws that does not discriminate, that Lady Justice holding the scales of justice is indeed blind, not swayed by money or power.
Without all of the above mythology, people might take to the streets for real justice, for a public benefit trust with teeth. See the recent Black Lives Matter protests — in which millions flooded the streets month after month after month — for a prime example of how to fight back. Or recall the Civil Rights movement of the Fifties and Sixties — boycotts, marches, protests, sit-ins, civil disobedience against immoral laws— public demonstrations year after year after year.
And now, in November 2020, we are witnessing the mad dash of Big Pharma to make billions from the COVID-19 crisis. A November 9 New York Times article announces that “Pfizer’s Early Data Shows Vaccine Is More Than 90% Effective.” Don’t expect the FDA to regulate these vaccines. Instead, the FDA is akin to the movie usher, aiding Big Pharma to their seats in the front row.
This corrupt Purdue Pharma deal and the oncoming vaccine deals are yet another illustration of why we need universal health care, in which all medical care operations and all of Big Pharma would be nationalized and socialized, run for the benefit of the patients and their families, and not for obscene profits.