It was reported in the news recently that Richard Sackler, the former president of Purdue Pharma and a doctor, has been granted a patent for a reformulation of buprenorphine, an opioid (which is milder than some but still has the potential to be misused) that is used to control drug cravings. Purdue is the manufacturer of OxyContin, a highly addictive opioid pain medication that has been the subject of millions of dollars’ worth of lawsuits in the past few years. When the drug was originally released, Purdue claimed that it was longer lasting and less addictive than other pain medications, statements that were eventually proved false when it became the drug of choice for many addicts. Some believe that Sackler is merely trying to right his company’s wrongs, but others are more skeptical about his altruism.
In 2015, Forbes magazine estimated the Sacklers’ worth to be $14 billion. Speaking to the magazine Vice, Allen Frances, MD, professor emeritus of psychiatry at Duke University, compared the family to a drug cartel, saying they’re just as shameless and only marginally less ruthless. Critics say that Sackler, having already profited enormously from the suffering of others, is now simply looking for a way to make more money.
Purdue executive director of communications Bob Josephson insists that the company doesn’t own the patent and has no intention of profiting from it. According to Bloomberg News, Purdue is offering free doses of their new treatment as part of an attempt to resolve the more than 1,000 lawsuits accusing the company of helping fuel the opioid crisis. According to people familiar with the settlement process, Purdue has offered multiple times to give away free doses of the altered buprenorphine as part of any settlement. Richard Ausness, a University of Kentucky law professor, told Bloomberg that Purdue has never shown any signs of remorse in the past, and he believes that this is nothing but a negotiating tactic to limit the amount of money they have to pay in any settlement.
Purdue isn’t the first pharmaceutical company to keep generating massive revenue despite illegal activities. There is a class of medication called atypical antipsychotic drugs, which are meant to treat schizophrenia, bipolar disorder, and psychotic depression. These disorders are somewhat rare, however, so people were using the drugs off-label to control the erratic behavior of children and elderly people with mental illnesses. Most manufacturers of these drugs have been fined at some point for illegally promoting this off-label use, with Pfizer, Johnson and Johnson, and AstraZeneca and BristolMyersSquibb paying a combined $6 billion. That might sound like enough to bankrupt some, but according to numbers from 2012, those drugs alone generated $15 billion in revenue annually for the companies.
Unfortunately, there doesn’t seem to be a solution for corporate greed. Clearly, fines and lawsuits aren’t enough to make a real impact on these behemoth drug companies. Perhaps harsher penalties that would actually affect business would make a difference, but right now it seems as though we’re chipping away one complaint at a time.
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