From THE ST. LOUIS POST-DISPATCH
LAST WEEK’S admission by Purdue Pharma of criminal responsibility for its role in fomenting and exploiting the nationwide opioid epidemic might be extraordinary, but it’s not satisfactory. Yes, Purdue has agreed to a remarkable $8.3 billion fine. But real people at the top of that company, including Sackler family former owners, made predatory decisions that destroyed millions of lives and continue to pose major disruptions in cities like St. Louis. Fines without real prison time for those responsible would constitute a miscarriage of justice.
“The devastating ripple effect of Purdue’s actions left lives lost and others addicted,” Drug Enforcement Administration Assistant Administrator Tim McDermott stated after Purdue’s guilty plea on three criminal charges.
Opioid overdoses are linked to an estimated 450,000 deaths from 1999 to 2019, with about one-third of 2018 deaths attributed to prescription opioids such as Purdue’s Oxycontin. The company, which declared bankruptcy in 2019, plans to dissolve because it lacks adequate assets to pay the fine. A trust will be established to operate what the settlement describes as a new “public benefit company” whose profits from ongoing drug sales will be used to fund overdose and addiction-treatment programs.
All well and good, but state authorities correctly insist that more must be done to ensure the people who designed and approved Purdue’s predatory decisions are forced to account for themselves in court. Last week’s deal “doesn’t account for the hundreds of thousands of deaths or millions of addictions caused by Purdue Pharma and the Sackler family,” New York Attorney General Letitia James stated. “Instead, it allows billionaires to keep their billions without any accounting for how much they really made.”
For too long, corporate directors and billionaire owners have been allowed to escape imprisonment by effectively buying their way to freedom with big fines, whether the crimes involve big banks responsible for the 2008 economic meltdown or those behind the opioid-addiction epidemic. It’s safe to say in this case that Purdue — along with other major drug manufacturers including St. Louis-founded Mallinckrodt Pharmaceuticals — played a primary role in the exploding homelessness, crime and gang warfare that continue to roil American cities.
The Sackler family agreed to a separate $225 million civil settlement, which probably won’t put a serious dent in the family’s multibillion-dollar fortune, about $13 billion of which was withdrawn from Purdue Pharma before the federal criminal case was settled. The Sacklers insist they were not involved in the management decisions at the heart of this case.
But some members reportedly were involved in pressuring company officials to boost marketing and distribution of Oxycontin to maximize profits. Doctors and distributors were rewarded for their help boosting opioid sales. Lobbyists pressured U.S. drug-enforcement agencies to back off. If lives were destroyed in the process of raking in massive profits, well, too bad.