House investigators demanded to know Thursday if a leading opioid maker tried to downplay the risks of its products or profit off addiction treatment even as it sold pills that got many Americans hooked in the first place.
Oversight Committee Chairman Elijah Cummings told the Sackler family, which purchased Purdue Pharma in the 1950s and still owns a controlling share, to produce documents related to its efforts to market OxyContin as less prone to abuse than other prescription painkillers. He also wants to know if it pressured federal regulators to approve their pills for “round the clock” use.
In addition, lawmakers are scrutinizing company efforts to advance an injectable, overdose-reversing drug and patent a form of buprenorphine, a top drug for treating opioid addiction.
“Purdue has pledged that it will not profit from sales of its new products,” the lawmakers wrote in a letter to Purdue President and CEO Craig Landau. “However, the Sackler family has already realized significant personal profit from Purdue’s commercial enterprise.”
Health experts have pointed to rampant use of prescription painkillers in the late 1990s and early 2000s as the spark that ignited the opioids crisis, which kills tens of thousands of Americans per year.
People who got hooked on pills sometimes switch to cheaper heroin, which is often laced with deadly fentanyl, a synthetic opioid.
Purdue paid $600 million in 2006 to settle claims it misstated the addictive effects of OxyContin.
Yet a high-profile lawsuit by Massachusetts Attorney General Maura Healey is casting the spotlight on the Sackler family again, alleging members pushed to drive up sales of painkillers over the past decade by encouraging doctors to dole out more pills, while pushing for longer periods of treatment.
At the same time, court documents say, the family pushed to become an “end-to-end pain provider” by devising products to treat drug addiction.
Purdue is trying to have the case thrown out, saying the claims are “sensational,” “over-simplified” and “hyperbole-filled” attempts to scapegoat the company for the drug-overdose crisis.
It says the FDA signed off on its efforts to treat pain, even issuing a “black box” warning to rein in improper use, and that the illegal drug market is to blame for much of the opioid crisis.
The company stopped promoting opioids to prescribers in February 2018 and has run full-page ads in top newspapers touting its efforts to rein in opioid abuse.
The Wall Street Journal also reported the company is considering a bankruptcy filing to contain its liability in court.
The Massachusetts lawsuit is one of hundreds against opioid companies of all stripes across the country. Hundreds of suits are consolidated in Ohio, while a trial against opioid companies in Oklahoma is set to begin May 28.
Opioid addiction is a leading concern on Capitol Hill, so the Oversight Committee is picking up on the allegations outlined in the Massachusetts lawsuit and other court papers.
For instance, Mr. Cummings cited a 2015 deposition that Richard Sackler gave in a lawsuit filed by the state of Kentucky.
The committee’s letter to Mr. Landau requests a list of Sackler family members who’ve served Purdue Pharma in any way, plus any documents and communications related to sales-and-marketing strategies for Purdue opioid products or efforts to change FDA labeling.
“The United States is in the midst of its greatest public health crisis in decades,” Mr. Cummings and Rep. Mark DeSaulnier, California Democrat, wrote. “Due in part to the aggressive over-prescribing of opioids like OxyContin, millions of Americans are in the grip of drug addiction.”
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