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Unredacted Documents Shed Light On Massachusetts Opioid Lawsuit


A lawsuit in Massachusetts does not make the Sackler family look good. The Sacklers own the company Purdue Pharma. It's the company that makes the painkiller OxyContin. It's being sued for promoting a highly addictive drug that has played a prominent role in the opioid crisis. And newly released documents in that lawsuit show a member of the family pushing for bigger doses and thus greater sales. Martha Bebinger of WBUR is covering this story. Good morning.


INSKEEP: What are these documents?

BEBINGER: These documents are the latest version in the complaint, which was filed by the Massachusetts Attorney General Maura Healey. What we see now is new lines that were previously blacked out - hundreds and hundreds of them. And they show board notes about payments that allegedly totaled hundreds of millions of dollars a year to the Sacklers. Those - that's the family that owns Purdue Pharma.

INSKEEP: Oh, so this is the board of directors. They're taking notes. We knew about these papers before. But now we can actually read what is on them. And they show immense profits.

BEBINGER: They show immense profits - 4 billion over about a 13-year period.


BEBINGER: Actually, 4 billion over more of, like, a 10-year period.

INSKEEP: And the Sacklers had the power to, effectively, set their own payment here because it is - they're in control of the company. Is that what happened?

BEBINGER: They held a majority on the board for all of that time. That's correct. And they continued to vote themselves quite substantial payments. In 2009, Steve, for example, the Sacklers paid themselves $335 million the same time they authorized spending 122 million on sales reps who were charged with ramping up profits. And in that year, they acknowledged some harm from one of their opioid drugs, OxyContin, because they approved 2.7 million in personal injury claims.

INSKEEP: Wow. So they knew this was dangerous. Now, I just want to remind people, Martha, for those who maybe don't quite know. The Sacklers, of course, are a very big family. They're very wealthy - have been for a very long time - philanthropists, other things. Not all of them are implicated here. But in these documents, one family member in particular really, really is. Right?

BEBINGER: Richard Sackler, yes. He held the position of CEO until 2003. He was on the board for many years. The email you're referring to talks about pushing sales of a higher dose of OxyContin, which was more addictive. And so people would stay on it longer. They would be more - it was a more expensive drug. There are also many references to board members directing sales in Massachusetts in particular - higher volume of sales, more visits to doctors to try to encourage more prescriptions. These are all allegations, of course. But there are documents that cite board notes, emails and many other forms of communication that seem to really be evidence of this pattern.

INSKEEP: You just said these are all allegations. What is the company saying? And what are the Sacklers saying about all of this?

BEBINGER: The company, Purdue Pharma, is saying that Massachusetts Attorney General cherry-picked from a million documents to try to build this case, that it's riddled with inaccuracies and that she's really trying to vilify Purdue, even though there are many other companies involved in this opioid epidemic. An attorney for the Sacklers says they don't even belong in the lawsuit. There's no jurisdiction to sue them in Massachusetts because they had no direct dealings there.

INSKEEP: And it is at least true that other companies are involved because another company is being sued just in Massachusetts, I guess, we should note. Martha, thanks so much - really appreciate it.

BEBINGER: Thank you.

INSKEEP: That's Martha Bebinger of WBUR. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Martha Bebinger
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