The family behind the development of Oxycontin pushed the opioid painkiller despite its danger signs, saying the 'blizzard of prescriptions' would be 'deep, dense, and white'

The family behind the development of Oxycontin pushed the opioid painkiller despite its danger signs, saying the 'blizzard of prescriptions' would be 'deep, dense, and white'


George Frey/Reuters

A pharmacist holds prescription painkiller OxyContin, 40mg pills, made by Purdue Pharma L.D.

  • In a new lawsuit, Massachusetts Attorney General Maura Healey accuses OxyContin maker Purdue Pharma of deceiving patients and doctors about the risks of opioids.
  • The case names Purdue Pharma's executives and members of the Sackler family, and provides information about former Purdue Pharma President Richard Sackler's role in overseeing sales of the drug.
  • The complaint alleges the Sackler family was long aware its drug was dangerous and addictive but pushed more sales anyway.
  • At a launch party in the 1990s, Richard Sackler, then senior vice president responsible for sales, told people the drug would "bury the competition," and for years pushed for more sales of the drug, according to court documents.

A member of the family that owns OxyContin maker Purdue Pharma told people at the prescription opioid painkiller's launch party in the 1990s that it would be "followed by a blizzard of prescriptions that will bury the competition," according to court documents filed Tuesday.

The details were made public in a case brought by Massachusetts Attorney General Maura Healey that accuses Purdue Pharma, its executives, and members of the Sackler family of deceiving patients and doctors about the risks of opioids and pushing prescribers to keep patients on the drug longer.

The documents provide information about former Purdue Pharma President Richard Sackler's role in overseeing sales of OxyContin that hasn't been public before.

The drug and the closely held Connecticut company that sells it are at the center of a lawsuit in Massachusetts, and hundreds of others across the country in which government entities are trying to find the drug industry responsible for an opioid crisis that killed 72,000 Americans in 2017.


The Massachusetts litigation is separate from some 1,500 federal lawsuits filed by governments being overseen by a judge in Cleveland.

But the company documents at the heart of the Massachusetts allegations are also part of the evidence exchanged in those cases.

While the Massachusetts filing describes their contents, the documents themselves have not been made public, at the company's request.

Purdue Pharma President Richard Sackler created 'a manmade disaster, the case alleges

OxyContin Opioids purdue pharma

AP Photo/Jessica Hill

Cheryl Juaire addresses family and friends who have lost loved ones to OxyContin and Opioid overdoses during a protest at Purdue Pharma LLP headquarters in Stamford, Conn., Friday, Aug. 17, 2018. Demonstrators allege the company's marketing of its opioid painkiller OxyContin has helped fuel addiction and opioid overdose deaths.

According to the filing, Richard Sackler, then-senior vice president responsible for sales, told the audience at the launch party to imagine a series of natural disasters: an earthquake, volcanic eruption, hurricane, and blizzard.


"The launch of OxyContin Tablets will be followed by a blizzard of prescriptions that will bury the competition. The prescription blizzard will be so deep, dense, and white," he said, according to the documents.

"Over the next twenty years, the Sacklers made Richard's boast come true," lawyers in the attorney general's office wrote. "They created a manmade disaster. Their blizzard of dangerous prescriptions buried children and parents and grandparents across Massachusetts, and the burials continue."

The complaint alleges the Sackler family, which includes major donors to museums including the Smithsonian Institution, New York's Metropolitan Museum of Art, and the Tate Modern in London, was long aware its drug was dangerous and addictive but pushed more sales anyway.

A memo among family members in 2008 warned of a "dangerous concentration of risk" for the family, the complaint says.

Years earlier, Richard Sackler wrote in an email that the company would have to "hammer on the abusers in every way possible," describing them as "the culprits and the problem."


Joanne Peterson, who runs a Massachusetts-based support network for the family members of people addicted to drugs, said Sackler's comments show a "blatant disregard for human life."

"He certainly hammered them six feet under," Peterson said. "I've been to more funerals than I can count in the last 15 years."

Sackler pushed sales while knowing the drug was dangerous, the case alleges

Massachusetts Attorney General Maura Healey purdue pharma opioids oxycontin lawsuit

Lane Turner/The Boston Globe via Getty Images

Massachusetts Attorney General Maura Healey talks with media in Boston on June 12, 2018 after the announcement of a lawsuit against Purdue Pharma, maker and marketer of prescription opioids, after an investigation showed over 670 Massachusetts residents have died from their drugs. According to the Attorney General's office, Purdue sales representatives made 150,000 visits to medical offices since 2008, sold 70 million doses, and generated $500 million in revenue.

And despite warnings about the drug, Sackler continued pushing for more sales, the case alleges.

In 2011, Sackler wasn't satisfied with Purdue Pharma's sales, the documents allege.


"After one week of prescriptions doubled Purdue's forecast, Richard [Sackler] wrote to the sales staff: 'I had hoped for better results,'" the case says.

The case claims that in 2011, Massachusetts sales representatives pushed doctors to prescribe opioids to elderly patients with arthritis more than 1,000 times, and that Sackler pushed for more.

Read more: People in the US are more likely to die from opioid overdose than car accidents, according to new reports

The complaint highlights that one sales representative was ordered to increase prescriptions by 62% in the state, while Purdue Pharma threatened to fire two others if they didn't improve their performance.

Staff told the Sacklers in 2013 that drug overdose deaths had tripled since 1990, and that OcyContin had become the top-selling painkiller in the country, according to the documents.


"Staff told the Sacklers that tens of thousands of deaths were only the 'tip of the iceberg.' ... [F]or every death, there were more than a hundred people suffering from prescription opioid dependence or abuse," the complaint says.

Purdue Pharma says the lawsuit contains 'biased and inaccurate characterizations'


AP Photo/Toby Talbot, File

This file photo, shows OxyContin pills arranged for a photo at a pharmacy in Montpelier, Vt.

Purdue Pharma accused the attorney general's office of cherry-picking from millions of emails and documents to create "biased and inaccurate characterizations" of the company and its executives.

The company said in a statement it will "aggressively defend against these misleading allegations."

The company also stresses that its drug is approved by federal regulators and prescribed by doctors; that it accounts for a small portion of opioids sold in the US; and that illicit drugs including heroin and street fentanyl are causing most overdose deaths.


"In a rush to vilify a single manufacturer whose medicines represent less than two percent of opioid pain prescriptions rather than doing the hard work of trying to solve a complex public health crisis, the complaint distorts critical facts and cynically conflates prescription opioid medications with illegal heroin and fentanyl," Purdue Pharma said.

A spokeswoman for the Sackler family didn't immediately respond to the AP's request for comment.

Massachusetts is the first state to personally name the company's executives in a complaint. It names 16 current and former executives and board members, including CEO Craig Landau, Richard Sackler, and other members of the Sackler family.

An earlier version of Healey's complaint was filed on December 21, with more than half it redacted, NPR reported. Some sections remained blacked out in Tuesday's filing.

A suit filed by the New York County of Suffolk also names members of the family. A lawyer who filed that suit, Paul Hanly, said he expects the family to be named in further suits.


Last year, Purdue halted efforts to market OxyContin to doctors.

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