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When Purdue Pharma started selling its prescription opioid painkiller OxyContin in 1996, Dr. Richard Sackler asked people gathered for the launch party to envision natural disasters like an earthquake, a hurricane, or a blizzard. The debut of OxyContin, said Sackler — a member of the family that started and controls the company and then a company executive — “will be followed by a blizzard of prescriptions that will bury the competition.”

Five years later, as questions were raised about the risk of addiction and overdoses that came with taking OxyContin and opioid medications, Sackler outlined a strategy that critics have long accused the company of unleashing: divert the blame onto others, particularly the people who became addicted to opioids themselves.

“We have to hammer on the abusers in every way possible,” Sackler wrote in an email in February 2001. “They are the culprits and the problem. They are reckless criminals.”


Sackler’s comments at the party and his email are contained in newly public portions of a lawsuit filed by the state of Massachusetts against Purdue that alleges that the company, the Sackler family, and company executives misled prescribers and patients as they aimed to blanket the country with prescriptions for their addictive medications.

“By their misconduct, the Sacklers have hammered Massachusetts families in every way possible,” the state’s complaint says, noting that since 2007, Purdue has sold more than 70 million doses of opioids in Massachusetts for more than $500 million. “And the stigma they used as a weapon made the crisis worse.”


The new filing also reveals how Purdue aggressively pursued tight relationships with Tufts University’s Health Sciences Campus and Massachusetts General Hospital — two of the state’s premier academic medical centers — to expand prescribing by physicians, generate goodwill toward opioid painkillers among medical students and doctors in training, and combat negative reports about opioid addiction.

Lawsuit filed by the state of Massachusetts against Purdue Pharma

Under an agreement with Mass. General, Purdue has paid the hospital $3 million since 2009 and was allowed to propose “areas where education in the field of pain is needed” and “curriculum which might meet such needs,” the court document shows. Tufts made a Purdue employee an adjunct associate professor in 2011, Purdue-written materials were approved for teaching to Tufts students in 2014, and the company sent staff to Tufts as recently as 2017, the complaint says. Purdue’s New England staff was congratulated for “penetrating this account.”

A Tufts spokesman declined to comment, citing the ongoing legal process. Mass. General did not immediately comment.

In a statement Tuesday, Purdue criticized the Massachusetts Attorney General Maura Healey’s office, which is spearheading the lawsuit, and said the complaint was “a rush to vilify” Purdue. It noted that its medications were approved by the Food and Drug Administration and regulated by the government, and that the company promoted the medications “to licensed physicians who have the training and responsibility to ensure that medications are properly prescribed.”

“Massachusetts’ amended complaint irresponsibly and counterproductively casts every prescription of OxyContin as dangerous and illegitimate, substituting its lawyers’ sensational allegations for the expert scientific determinations of the [FDA] and completely ignoring the millions of patients who are prescribed Purdue Pharma’s medicines for the management of their severe chronic pain,” the company said.

It also said the state attorney general’s office omitted information about the steps Purdue has taken in the past decade to promote safe and appropriate use of opioid medicines.

“To distract from these omissions of fact and the other numerous deficiencies of its claims, the Attorney General has cherry-picked from among tens of millions of emails and other business documents produced by Purdue,” the company said. “The complaint is littered with biased and inaccurate characterizations of these documents and individual defendants, often highlighting potential courses of action that were ultimately rejected by the company.”

Healey’s office sued Purdue, current and former executives, and members of the Sackler family in June. In December, it filed an amended complaint that was nearly 200 pages longer than the June filing, with more allegations spelled out against the individual defendants. Many of the details were redacted; a portion of them were made public in an updated document filed Tuesday in state court, though much of the complaint is still blacked out.

The state’s suit focuses on Purdue’s actions since 2007, when the company and three current and former executives pleaded guilty in federal court to fraudulently marketing OxyContin and the company agreed to pay $600 million in fines. The case is separate from litigation being waged by STAT to obtain sealed Purdue documents in Kentucky, including the only known deposition of Richard Sackler, about the company’s marketing practices in earlier years, which have been blamed for seeding the current opioid addiction crisis.

The Massachusetts complaint sketches an image of the Sacklers, as board members, exercising tight control over the company, overseeing the deployment of a phalanx of sales representatives who were pushed to get Purdue medications into more hands, at higher doses, and for longer periods of time. The Sacklers, the complaint states, reaped “billion of dollars,” even as the company blurred the risks of addiction and overdose that came with the drugs.

Richard Sackler, who was named president of the company in 1999 before becoming co-chairman in 2003, is singled out in the complaint as particularly domineering as he demanded greater sales. In 2011, he decided to shadow sales reps for a week “to make sure his orders were followed,” the complaint states.

Russell Gasdia, then the company’s vice president of sales and marketing, who is also a defendant in the Massachusetts lawsuit, went to Purdue’s chief compliance officer to warn that if Sackler directly promoted opioids, it was “a potential compliance risk.”

“LOL,” the compliance officer replied, according to the complaint. Other staff raised concerns, but they ultimately said that “Richard needs to be mum and anonymous” when he went into the field.

After the visits to doctors, Richard Sackler claimed that Purdue’s drugs shouldn’t need a legally mandated warning. He wrote in an email cited in the complaint that the warning “implies a danger of untoward reactions and hazards that simply aren’t there.”

The following year, Sackler’s pressure on the staff grew so intense that Gasdia asked the CEO to intervene: “Anything you can do to reduce the direct contacts of Richard into the organization is appreciated,” Gasdia wrote in an email cited by the complaint.

It apparently didn’t work: The next week, Richard Sackler emailed sales managers to say that U.S. sales were “among the worst” in the world.

Sales managers were badgered on nights, weekends, and holidays, according to the filing. The marketing campaigns focused on high-volume doctors, who were visited repeatedly by salespeople, and pushed doctors to prescribe high doses. The demands on sales managers created such a stressful environment that, in 2012, they threatened to fire all sales representatives in the Boston area because of lackluster numbers.

The complaint also accuses Purdue of rarely reporting allegedly illegal activity, such as improper prescribing, to government officials when it learned about it. In one 2009 case, a Purdue sales manager wrote to a company official that Purdue was promoting opioids to an illegal pill mill.

“I feel very certain this is an organized drug ring,” the employee wrote, adding “Shouldn’t the DEA be contacted about this?” Purdue did nothing for two years, according to the complaint.

In addition to relying on its sales force, Purdue cultivated ties with academic hospitals, which both treat patients and train the next generation of prescribers.

In 2002, the company started the Massachusetts General Hospital Purdue Pharma Pain Program after a Purdue employee reported that access to the hospital’s doctors “is great … they come to us with any questions, and allow us to see them when we need to.” The hospital, the staffer added, “has significant influence through most of New England, simply because they are MGH.”

As part of the program, Purdue gained influence over training programs and organized a symposium in the hospital’s famed “Ether Dome” — the site of the first public surgery with anesthetic.

The Sacklers renewed the deal with Mass. General in 2009 and agreed to contribute $3 million to fund the program, the lawsuit says.

Purdue’s funding, however, didn’t stop researchers at Mass. General from raising concerns about its products. The complaint cites a July 2011 email from Purdue’s then-chief medical officer Craig Landau — who is now the CEO and is a defendant in the lawsuit — flagging a study questioning the use of opioid painkillers for chronic pain that was conducted by Mass. General researchers with Purdue funding. Landau wanted to make sure that any Purdue-funded study supported the use of its medicines.

Purdue’s ties to Tufts date back even further, according to the lawsuit. In 1980, three Sacklers donated funding to launch the Sackler School of Graduate Biomedical Sciences. In 1999, the Sacklers gave money to help start the Tufts Masters of Science in Pain Research, Education, and Policy. Through the program, “Purdue got to control research on the treatment of pain coming out of a prominent and respected institution of learning,” the filing states. Purdue employees even taught a Tufts seminar about opioids, and Tufts and its teaching hospital collaborated with Purdue on a publication for patients called “Taking Control of Your Pain.”

Purdue also allegedly used Tufts’s ties in Maine as reports about addiction emerged in the state. Tufts ran a residency program in the state, the complaint says, and in 2000 “agreed to help Purdue find doctors to attend an event where Purdue could defend its reputation.”

The bulk of the documents cited in the Massachusetts complaint were filed by Purdue in federal court in Ohio as part of a consolidated case involving hundreds of lawsuits filed by states, cities, counties, and tribes against Purdue, other opioid manufacturers, and others in the pharmaceutical industry.

Purdue says it produced 45 million pages of documents for the federal court case — known as a multidistrict litigation. In a motion filed last month and in an emergency hearing before the federal judge in Ohio overseeing the MDL, Purdue argued that the details in Massachusetts’s amended complaint were largely drawn from about 500 Purdue documents it had filed on a confidential basis in the federal court. The company’s lawyers argued the rules of confidentiality established in the federal court should apply to Massachusetts’ filing in state court, while state officials say the issue of what should be made public should be decided in state court.

Among the records Purdue said last month should remain confidential are those involving the company’s board of directors. Making them public, the company argued, would have a “chilling effect” on corporate governance.

The effort to protect the disclosure of board-related documents serves another purpose not cited by the company: It protects the Sackler family, whose members have long constituted the majority of board members.

In its filing last month, Purdue also said one company official, whom it did not name, was concerned for his safety because his home address was listed in the complaint along with “numerous irrelevant, incendiary, and misleading comments about his career at Purdue.”

Purdue’s attorneys contend the Massachusetts amended complaint is a “concerted effort by the Commonwealth to use confidential documents in an attempt to publicly embarrass Purdue and its officers, directors and employees.” They claim the information selected was “cherry-picked” to “bolster a series of inflammatory and misleading allegations against Purdue.”

In September 2017, Landau, by that time Purdue’s CEO, jotted down a note summarizing some of the roots of the opioid crisis. It reads:

“There are:
Too many Rxs being written
Too high a dose
For too long
For conditions that often don’t require them
By doctors who lack the requisite training in how
to use them appropriately.”

The state’s lawsuit concludes: “The opioid epidemic is not a mystery to the people who started it. The defendants knew what they were doing.”

This story has been updated.

  • Hello, im trying to find out who to contact about suing the oxcontin company. I was put on a heavy dose at age 19 and have become an addict and my life has been hell.i would like to know what to do to further my claim

  • Richard Padovini: I somewhat agree with you on not blaming the manufacturer.
    The hospital “pushed” me to use an opiate post op. I refused because my pain level was manageable with Ibuprofen. If I had been in prolonged excruciating pain, maybe I would have taken it. Would I have become addicted? I doubt it, because as a medical professional I would have been careful to avoid it. What if I became addicted even though I did not want to because the drug is so heavily addictive? I don’t know the answer to that. That answer is the key to culpability.

  • It is wrong to blame the manufacturer. People need to take personal responsibility for not following the instructions on the bottle. The same people dying are the same people that would jump off an overpass or commit suicide in a different manner. Family’s sue to clear their conscience for not being able to help their loved one who obviously have emotional problems.

    • 400,000 people wanted to commit suicide? Purdue pushed their distributors, salesmen, and doctors hard to sell & prescribe their drugs and were only interested in making money. Patients trusted them. They were no better than common drug dealers and just as culpable.

  • Mr Sackler, at the very least, should be required to take the same dose he was pushing these doctors to prescribe to patients for no less than three months. Of course, he has the money to obtain the treatment it takes to end the pain of his addiction, unlike many of the dead and dying he has left in his wealthy wake. I’d also bet my bottom dollar that even in his “poverty” he’ll be padding someone’s pocket come this election year! Yes, big pharma needs to take some responsibility in this mess.

    • Alcohol kills WAY more than LEGALLY RXD LIFESAVING PAIN MEDICATION, according to the cdc nearly 90,000 due every year due to alcohol. Approx. 17,000 a year due from legal prescriptions and that’s when it is taken with other drugs and or alcohol. Only 1% beco.e addicted to pain medication. Based on your opinion, so for every alcoholic that died should the states be sueing alcohol companies, they did make the product after all, although they didnt FORCE anyone to consume it. It’s a CHOICE whether a person CHOOSES to consume it or not. How about the car indudstry?! How many die in car wrecks each year, lets sue the manufacturers of those deadly machines, and same thing with guns too… PERSONAL RESPONSIBILITY no longer matters in this country. Joe schmoe becomes addicted to ILLEGAL drugs , it was his CHOICE to start popping pills while partying with pals, hanging out drinking alcohol,but who gets the blame?! Thats right some made up dr takes the fall, instead of the one who CHOSE to misuse in the first place! Been around enough addicts in my life to see how they operate, in fact my ex destroyed our marriage, stole my LIFESAVING PAIN MEDICATION from me, for years he had a good ole time..when asked why he did it the answer would be “because its fun”. When finally going to rehab who got blamed?? A fictious dr he said put him on the pills. THERE WAS NEVER ANY DR!!! These lawsuits against pharma/pain medication makers is going to cause total devastation to the pain community! It’s bad enough innocent law abiding chronically ill citizens/vets are being abandoned NATIONWIDE, abruptly cut off their lifelines, left in agony until #SuicideDueToPain is only option! Corrupt politicians, DEA, CDC, FDA, PROP, ANDREW KOLODNY have been committing GENOCIDE thruout the pain community, killing off those suffering from debilitating incurable diseases that cause severe pain! There are youtube videos created in honor of the thousands who took their lives. !! The war on drugs =WAR on #PAIN!

  • Oh boo hoo!!
    I’m so sick of reading about how pain pills killed this kid or that kid, or this person is hooked, or like that Christine Nowicki person crying about how the drug companies need to go DOWN! look your kid died because they were using them to get HIGH! they didnt die because they follow what the DR said.. NOPE THEY WANTED TO GET HIGH! SO is any of the families giving the money away to charity? I bet not they are using the death of their family member to get rich. Like that woman who wrote the book about her kid dying, she is getting paid on the back of her dead kid.

    If any of you morons that’s on here crying how pain pills ruined your life because you got addicted, but didnt know that they were addictive then you are sooo stupid.. with all of the hype around paid pills today you can’t pick any paper or hell even going to the pharmacy they even tell you what the side effects are.. AND THE POSSIBLE ADDICTION!

    I have a bridge in Brooklyn I want to sell, please email me for details.

    So because of these sick bastards suing the drug companies, and saying they are doing it to stop someone else’s kid from dying is 100% full of crap! They are doing it to get money. Now real people with real pain. Can’t get the relief from the pain because of all the hoops you have to jump through.

    Insurance companies won’t cover the cost of other medications if you use pain pills. I spent 25 yrs in the US ARMY medically retired because of being hit by 3 IEDS the last one did me in good. So now I have to live in crazy pain because I can’t get pain medication or if I do my insurance wont pay for my other medications. I know the risk if the I take them. But I don’t have they choice..

    So to the families suing the drug companies are you going to come and write me a check to cover my medicine so I can get pain relief because of you knuckleheads messing everything up? I bet I dont hear crap from any of them.

    So listen up stop your silly ass whinning because you were stupid and wanted to get high and now your out of control OR STOP CRYING ABOUT YOUR DUMB ASS KID WHO DIED BECAUSE HE OR SHE was out getting high.

    Hell with the college kids around here all you hear from them is where they can get adderall or pain pills. They know what the hell they are doing they ALL KNOW ALL OF THEM KNOW what they are doing. They all knew and know its addictive. If they say anything else

    So thanks for screwing my life up morons.

  • I started with radical emergency cervical surgery!! Found out I had 3 spinal diseases & had several more surgeries. Now I have possible MS, I have been run through the ringer. Have a back brace. Been scared to death approached in public on more than one occasion asked what My medications I was taking. Had some of my children’s friend’s steal my OxyContin. I was heavily sedated. I tried to keep it hidden. Was told to get to the ER ASAP!! My mother picked me up & took me. My mother asked where is the rest room. Then I crapped myself & vomiting. My mother asked for some scrub bottoms. They were EXTREMELY HARSH & said, I told you where the restroom was!! My mother said, she could NOT MAKE IT!! I have been treated like I was a drug addict. Stolen from. Badgered!!! Lost, my AWESOME HUSBAND, Children, Step-Children, My Home. Then made many, many, bad decisions, thought I was losing my mind. Checked myself into the hospital for suicide!! Lost my second house because, I couldn’t understand thing’s!! I feel this company should go DOWN & HARD!!! I feel like they were allowed to commit mass murder, pandimonium & chaos!!! I do not know anyone that has not been effected by OxyContin. I have panic attacks, have been diagnosed with post traumatic stress dis-order. Now I’ve DEATHLY AFRAID to make decisions because, my life is sooo…. screwed up. I have sooo…. much pain & no one can see inside me & totally cannot understand if they do not know what chronic pain feels like!! I want to know how I can get in on this lawsuit?? Please, help me. I feel like I’m going crazy. My pain management had to put me on a different pain med because my insurance won’t cover my OxyContin anymore. They said, I had to take Xtampza!! This crap has made me fill up my leg’s & body with sooo… much fluid that it is unbelievable!! Then have an emergency room doctor not even look at my legs & say it’s all in your head!! How humiliating. So, tell me why when I stopped The Xtampza for 3 days the swelling went ALL GONE??? I WOULD LOVE TO HAVE A TOP NOTCH ATTORNEY I CAN GET. I have been shoved around, pushed around, belittled, mentally messed up!! Along with having my world ripped right away from me with my DIBILITATING DISEASES. Please, Help Me ASAP!!! I’m BEGGING YOU!!

    • Trying to follow the logic here, which seems to mimic the mass ‘lets blame Purdue for everything’ hysteria rampant in the country right now. Oxycontin was prescribed as treatment for, not the cause of, pain related to three spinal diseases and several surgeries. The Sackler family, whatever their faults, isn’t responsible for poor parenting that has some ‘children’ believing it’s okay to steal medication to get high, nor for allowing their children to play with ‘kids’ raised in that manner. They also are not responsible for medical schools and hospitals not properly teaching staff how to considerately interact with patients and their families. And PTSD? It has nothing to do with the years of chronic pain, with it’s resultant surgeries and social costs? Not one mention about polypharmacy, which I find hard to believe that oxycontin was the only drug prescribed in all those years of physical & psychological agony.

      Finally, after blaming oxycontin for the all ready existing misery of the problems it was meant to help, the complaint is that insurance WON’T cover it anymore. SMH!!!!!!!!

      Opiods have been prescribed too freely at times. Percocet for headache? 7 days hydrocodone for a tooth extraction? But there are chronic pain syndromes where they have been used as adjunct therapy or last resort and proven effective. Pill mill docs should be prosecuted for what they are; legitimate physicians need to properly assess their patient for signs of prior substance use/abuse and/or mental disorder before prescribing any abusable medication, not just opiods. And patients need to be their own advocates, be adults and take on their responsibility to ask about their prescribed treatment, side effects, alternatives, and to safely store and take as directed any medications they are prescribed. 4-6 hours doesn’t mean every 3 hours, and supplement with street drugs then blame Purdue, because the patient wants to rush recovery or foolishly believes that every little twinge should be eliminated.

  • I love it: “I took oxycontin after a back surgery. How do I get involved with the lawsuit?” Not a word about how it was used; for how long; as instructed?; did it work?; and did you suffer addiction?’ Nope. Just how do I get me some money.
    SAMHSA stats show the vast majority of prescription opiod users weren’t taking a medication prescribed for their use. Of the legitimate pain patients who suffered an OUD, the majority never should have been prescribed an opiod to begin with, eith owing to prior substance abuse issues or due to mental health issues. Then there’s the fools with a legitimate limited term pain issue who abused the physician’s dosing instructions to try and rush back to normal activities after injury instead of healing over a proper period of time. (Like the son of a mother recently hawking her book about his death, basically because he had to double his dosage because, God forbid, he miss hockey season at his private high school).
    Corporations are greedy for sales and pushed the public relations work with doctors, but physicians and most of the public aren’t idiots about narcotics, and studies show at most 6%, and more likely closer to 1%, of legitimate patients taking these medications as prescribed for themselves end up with an OUD. The rest are abusers, users of polypharmacy dying from who knows which drug in their cocktail. And don’t forget even Nora Volkow at NIDA estimates up to 30% of prescription opiod ODs are suicides by legitimate chronic pain patients whose pain is undertreated.

  • For those commenting saying this is BS. Keep in mind that the issue here is that OxyContin and ALL opiates are extremely addictive and the pharma companies pushed it like Advil. I don’t think it should be taken away; that is not what I’m saying. The problem isn’t the drugs existence. The problem is the unethical sales tactics. There shouldn’t even be sales people for narcotics. Maybe product knowledge providers, but nobody pushing it down the throats of those with simple problems like a broken finger.

    I have been prescribed this drug multiple times, for extreme issues, and it probably kept my pain level just low enough to not kill myself, but that’s the only time people need it.

    FINALLY prescribe rates dropping and OD rates increasing IS an issue started from this drug. The prescribed rate dropping doesn’t prove OxyContin to be safe. It proves the opposite. People go to the doctor for minor issues and get prescribed and addicted to opiates. Then turn to the street and overdose. Completely would have been avoided if they weren’t pushed opiates for small issues like a simple bone break.
    Also, the people with major issues become dependent and now that it is less accessible because they gave it to a bunch of patients who didn’t need it who got hooked and died. Now the people who need it can’t get it and also go get some opioid off the street, OD, and die.

    The DEA, law enforcement, etc aren’t the reason this is happening. They are incorrectly addressing the problem, but the problem is the evil scum like Purdue.

    Everybody I know who has gone to the street looking for opiates did not start because they were a degenerate drug addict. They all were prescribed by a doctor who gave them no information of how to ween off, or how addicted they’d become. Once they’d run out, they’d get what they could, and on and on until they’re full blown addicts who OD. Would have never happened if they weren’t prescribed in the first place or at least informed of the drugs seriousness.

  • My daughter is addicted to this drug and it has caused lots of pain that these people should know about. Not to mention I have had 2 nephews to pass away. I feel they have no heart. They should be made to pay for rehabs for the people that are addicted. It has been all about the all might Dollar for them. God is bigger though.

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