“Good Riddance” – AG Stein Refuses to Back Down Against Pharma Giant Purdue
As the opioid epidemic continues to claim lives in North Carolina and across the country, there is renewed hope that pharmaceutical company owners and executives will be held accountable for their role in starting the crisis. Purdue Pharma, facing a growing number of lawsuits related to opioid abuse, filed for bankruptcy earlier this week, aiming to resolve ongoing cases without going to trial. Local governments in 23 states are currently taking legal action against the OxyContin manufacturer and its owners, the Sackler family. The litigation is largely focused on Purdue Pharma’s misleading advertisement campaigns that downplayed the addictiveness of OxyContin, as well as their failure to combat excessive sale of the drug. Now that the company has filed for bankruptcy, the Sackler family is expected to gradually hand over control of Purdue Pharma to new ownership. Additionally, profits from the sale of OxyContin will be put toward relief efforts in states most affected by the addiction crisis.
Despite the concessions included in this deal, North Carolina Attorney General Josh Stein believes the Sacklers are avoiding full financial responsibility by filing bankruptcy. In a statement released on Sept. 11, 2019, Stein revealed that he plans to sue the Sackler family in pursuit of a greater payout for drug addiction treatment in vulnerable areas.
The opioid crisis is a personal issue for many North Carolinians, as the state has seen an astounding 73 percent rise in accidental overdose deaths involving opioids from 2005 to 2015. More recent data from 2017 shows that opioid overdose accounts for 19.8 deaths per 100,000 people in North Carolina, greater than the national average of 14.6 deaths per 100,000. All told, a horrifying 1,785 people died of opioid overdose in 2018 alone. The number of babies born with neonatal opioid withdrawal syndrome (NOWS) in North Carolina is also above the national average, with 8.2 instances of NOWS recorded for every 1,000 hospital births.
The tremendous social costs of this crisis extends even further than the accidental deaths and addiction problems plaguing the state. Patients genuinely requiring treatment for chronic pain have suffered in the wake of the epidemic, often struggling to find doctors who are comfortable prescribing opioids. In 2017, NC healthcare providers granted 72 opioid prescriptions per 100 people. Now, doctors are more cognizant of the abuse of opioid prescriptions, making them hesitant to write prescriptions for drugs like OxyContin. For those living with chronic pain, limited access to medication due to its prevalent abuse has been debilitating, causing a spike in depression and suicidal thoughts. In response, a nationwide advocacy group called Don’t Punish Pain seeks to raise awareness about the plight of chronic pain patients and lobby for their right to treatment and medication. The death, sickness and suffering exacerbated by the Sackler family’s actions and the exorbitant effect on North Carolina seem to serve as Stein’s motivation to push for further, more punitive legal action.
As civil proceedings against the Sackler family and Purdue Pharma progress, there is a growing interest in pursuing criminal charges as well. While Stein did not express his intent to bring a criminal case against the Sacklers, many believe their misleading actions and inappropriate distribution methods warrant charges and harsh sentences.
The civil cases against Purdue Pharma may provide important precedent for exposing the negligence of pharmaceutical companies in preventing and addressing the opioid crisis, leading to greater scrutiny of company executives. In the meantime, the citizens of North Carolina and the country at large are left to pick up the pieces of this tragedy and face the grim realities of addiction.