Maine this week became the latest state to file a lawsuit against Purdue Pharma and its owners, the Sackler family. Forty states and some 2,000 local governments have now taken the company to court for its role in the opioid epidemic.

The manufacturers and distributors of opioid painkillers certainly deserve a share of the blame, Purdue Pharma, makers of OxyContin, most of all. The lawsuits are welcome and necessary.

But the pharmaceutical industry didn’t operate in a vacuum – when it came to pushing high-potency pills, it had help.

When OxyContin was introduced in 1995, Purdue Pharma said it was safer than previous opioids, which because of their potential for addiction had been reserved for cancer and end-of-life patients.

OxyContin was pushed on the public through endless sales visits, payoffs and dishonest marketing. Soon, it was being prescribed for backaches and rolled ankles. From 1999 to 2010, sales quadrupled, peaking at $2.6 billion in 2012.

The marketing on OxyContin, however, was a lie. Purdue Pharma knew OxyContin was no less prone to abuse than previous drugs. In fact, the company knew it was being abused in real time.


From their corporate headquarters, Purdue Pharma officials could see the opioid epidemic exploding in real time. They looked the other way as people figured out how to turn extended-release pills into an extremely powerful dose, and as pill mills across the country ordered extraordinary numbers of pills that went directly to the street.

As it was becoming clear that OxyContin was being diverted and abused on a wide scale, Richard Sackler, Purdue Pharma’s former chairman and president, was wondering how to shift the blame.

“If people die because they abuse it, good riddance,” Sackler said in recently unearthed emails.

But the company wasn’t alone in making OxyContin a success. The Food and Drug Administration approved the drug and allowed the claims about addiction and abuse – if Purdue Pharma knew they were bunk, the FDA should have too.

And even after the company in 2007 pleaded guilty to falsely marketing OxyContin and paid a $634.5 million fine, the FDA allowed the company to go on selling its harmful product through friendly doctors with many of the same tactics.

The complicity continues. In 2016, a year in which the number of Americans dead by drug overdose reached another record, Congress passed and President Barack Obama signed a law making it more difficult for the Drug Enforcement Administration to freeze suspect shipments of prescription drugs.

The architect of that bill, then-Rep. Tom Marino, R-Pa., was later nominated to be President Trump’s drug czar – he was forced to withdraw when his role in the legislation was made public.

Purdue Pharma and other companies that put profits over people’s lives must be held accountable, and the lawsuits help do that.

But the problem should have been stopped earlier, and would have been if regulators were allowed to do the job they were set up to do.

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