Notorious opioid manufacturer Purdue Pharma pled guilty to three federal charges on Wednesday. The charges include bribing doctors to unnecessarily prescribe the highly-addictive opioid OxyContin, defrauding the U.S. government, and paying illegal kickbacks to a health records company to promote opioids. The company has been fined $8 billion, although the likelihood that this will actually be paid in full is minimal as Purdue Pharma entered bankruptcy procedures in 2019.
The opioid addiction epidemic is one of the most destructive public health catastrophes in living memory. According to the Centers for Disease Control, more than 400,000 people died from opioid overdose between 1999 to 2017, which scientists say is likely an undercount. Last year, every three weeks deaths from opioid overdoses match the number of lives lost on Sept. 11. This year, 2020, is on pace to break previous records of opioid deaths as the pandemic and economic disruption has thrown the lives of many workers into instability and despair.
Unlike the COVID-19 virus, this crisis was manufactured. The Sackler family, owner of Purdue Pharma, sparked the opioid epidemic by flooding working-class communities with the highly addictive drug OxyContin once the Food and Drug Administration approved the pill as a long-acting painkiller in 1995. By the early 2000s, overdoses and deaths from opioids began to rise sharply, “with OxyContin at the center of the problem” according to the FDA. From 2004 to 2009, emergency department visits related to opioid addiction increased by 98 percent.
Opioid addictions and deaths tear families and communities apart. Mackenzie Stocum, a community organizer in the Kensington section of Philadelphia — a neighborhood the New York Times labeled “The Walmart of Heroin,” told Liberation News the Purdue Pharma settlement shows “The way corporations continue to value profit over people’s lives and then get away with it.”
From this pain and suffering the Sackler family has built their enormous wealth estimated at $13 billion. The Sacklers will not face any jail time or significant fines despite the charges against Purdue Pharma. Bankruptcy enables the company to write off losses from lawsuits and fines, and in fact Purdue itself will respawn as a “public benefit” corporation and continue to manufacture opioids for profit.
The Sacklers themselves have been ordered to pay little more than $200 million – less than 2 percent of their estimated net worth. Millions of lives have been affected by the opioid crisis. Huge numbers of people are in prison just for being addicted to opioids, yet this family of notorious drug lords is let off the hook. Stocum argued, “There is no dollar amount that can bring back the lives lost or reverse the harm that the Sackler family has caused for millions of people — They deserve a prison sentence, not a slap on the wrist and a fine that they won’t even pay.”