Criminal Acts: How Pharma Companies Pushed Drugs They Knew Were Addictive and Dangerous

Purdue Pharma building closeup

When the same bad thing happens to millions of people over a relatively short period, it makes sense to investigate, to look for the source of that crisis, and to remedy it. So when millions of Americans became addicted to prescription opioid pain relievers they were told were safe to consume, it made sense to investigate.

While many pharmaceutical corporations had a hand in the creation of the opioid epidemic, public health experts such as Andrew Kolodny, co-director of the Opioid Policy Research Collaborative at Brandeis University, say that Purdue Pharmaceuticals bears the lion’s share of the blame in today’s opioid crisis.

And while the Sackler family that owns Purdue Pharmaceuticals has used its immense wealth to negotiate legal settlements that benefit the family, it’s important to remember that Purdue Pharma already pled guilty to federal felonies on multiple occasions, felonies that furnished ample evidence Purdue/the Sacklers are culpable in America’s most lethal addiction crisis.

Purdue Pharma Representatives Lied to Medical Practitioners and Patients About the Addictive Nature of OxyContin

Doctors meeting
Photo by Drazen Zigic/

Perhaps Purdue’s first crime was the lies it told to medical practitioners and the general public about the addictive nature of OxyContin and other opioid pain relief products. “Drug users learned how to simply crush the controlled-release tablet and swallow, inject or inhale the high potency opioid for an intense morphinelike high. ... Purdue’s own testing in 1995 had demonstrated that 68% of the oxycodone could be extracted from an OxyContin tablet when crushed.” That’s a direct quote from researcher Art Van Lee, MD, in a paper describing the timeline of Purdue’s efforts to promote and market OxyContin under false pretenses that it was safe and nonaddictive.

To put it simply, Purdue Pharmaceuticals knew its OxyContin product was addictive and that crushing the pills allowed massive amounts of opioids to be consumed in a short period of time, yet it marketed the drug as though it was safe and nonaddictive. In fact, Purdue representatives went so far as to lie to the public, using misleading studies to enforce this lie.

According to Dr. Lee’s research, Purdue reps told doctors and patient interest groups that the risk of addiction to OxyContin was “less than one percent.” The representatives cited studies to back this up, yet the studies they cited were of patients taking opioid pain relievers for acute, short-term pain symptoms. Conversely, OxyContin was being manufactured and marketed to treat chronic pain symptoms, an entirely different medical demographic.

Speaking of studies, Dr. Lee also points out that not only did Purdue reps lie and misrepresent the data by citing non sequitur studies, but some studies were available at the time that showed considerable addiction risk in taking opioid pain relievers, with some studies revealing that as many as 45% of pain patients taking opioid painkillers will become addicted to those painkillers. Of course, these studies were nowhere to be found in Purdue’s campaign to promote its new drug.

In a criminal effort to convince the medical and patient communities that OxyContin was nonaddictive, Purdue salespersons and marketing specialists misrepresented the data, covered up the data, withheld the data, or simply lied about the dangerously addictive nature of OxyContin. And on May 10th, 2007, Purdue and three of its company executives pled guilty to criminal charges regarding misbranding OxyContin to the public sector and the medical communities that prescribe it.

Purdue Pharma Knowingly Supplied Illicit Pill Mills and Incentivized Doctors to Prescribe OxyContin by Offering Them Kickbacks

Doctors meeting
Photo by Jovanmandic/

In November 2020, the United States Department of Justice released a press release announcing the outcome of ongoing litigation against Purdue Pharmaceuticals. The litigation was directed at Purdue’s role in incentivizing doctors and medical practitioners to prescribe opioid pain relievers to patients.

The press release announced that Purdue had just pled guilty in federal court to both conspiracies to defraud the United States and efforts to violate the anti-kickback statute. From Rachael A. Honig, First Assistant U.S. Attorney for the District of New Jersey, “Purdue admitted that it marketed and sold its dangerous opioid products to healthcare providers, even though it had reason to believe those providers were diverting them to abusers.” Mrs. Honig went on to say, “The company lied to the Drug Enforcement Administration about steps it had taken to prevent such diversion, fraudulently increasing the amount of its products it was permitted to sell. Purdue also paid kickbacks to providers to encourage them to prescribe even more of its products.”

The guilty plea revealed that from May 2007 through at least March 2017, Purdue Pharma, led by the Sackler family, conspired to defraud the United States by impeding the lawful function of the Drug Enforcement Administration. Simply, Purdue had been reporting to the DEA on its “effective anti-drug diversion campaign” when in actual fact, Purdue was knowingly marketing and selling its drugs to more than 100 criminal “health care providers” that were diverting opioids to addicts and drug traffickers.

But that’s just the beginning. Not only was Purdue supplying clandestine drug operations across the country with supplies of OxyContin, but Purdue also admitted that from 2009 to 2017, Purdue paid individual doctors and medical companies such as Practice Fusion Inc. kickbacks if the doctors and medical companies prescribed OxyContin to patients and facilitated referrals, recommendations, and arrangements of more OxyContin, Butrans, and Hysingla for patients.

Fast Forward to 2021; The Sackler Family Continues to Deny Responsibility

Contrast the above crimes (incentivizing doctors to prescribe opioids, knowingly sending pills to illegal pill mill establishments, and lying to the public about the harmful nature of OxyContin) against the most recent legal proceedings, in which the Sackler family denied ANY responsibility in creating the opioid epidemic.

That’s big talk coming from the owners of a company that already pled guilty to multiple felony charges regarding the harmful nature of OxyContin and the company’s criminal business practices in attempting to maximize profits from a drug they knew was harmful.

And yet, the Sackler family still denies responsibility. In testimony on August 18, 2021, Richard Sackler flatly refused responsibility for Sackler/Purdue’s culpability for the opioid epidemic. Following is an excerpted transcript from that testimony:

Richard Sackler was asked a direct question. “Do you have any responsibility for the opioid crisis in the United States?”

“No,” Mr. Sackler replied.

“Does the Sackler family have any responsibility for the opioid crisis in the United States?”

“No,” Mr. Sackler replied.

“Does Purdue Pharma have any responsibility for the opioid crisis in the United States?”

“No,” Mr. Sackler replied.

“You didn’t think it was necessary in your role as a chair or president of an opioid company to determine how many people had died as a result of the use of that (OxyContin) product?”

“To the best of my knowledge, that data is not available,” Mr. Sackler replied.

The federal felonies and prior guilty pleadings are the smoking gun in the Purdue/Sackler role in creating what may be this country’s worst addiction crisis. Yet to this day, the company’s founders still deny any responsibility for the crisis they helped create.

Bankruptcy Court and an Escape from Culpability

Justice court building

As of right now, it looks as though the Sackler family will mostly get away with their crimes, a true miscarriage of justice. Why? Because the response to the above-listed guilty verdicts was to launch Purdue into bankruptcy court, which resulted in September’s $4.5 billion legal settlement and the permanent, infinite immunity for Sackler family members and about 1,000 employees.

Ironically, Purdue and the Sacklers positioned themselves to benefit from the very guilty verdicts they pled to in previous lawsuits.

It would seem that the Sacklers’ ability to hold the $4.5 billion settlement above the heads of the plaintiffs, not agreeing to a settlement until immunity was in place for themselves and their colleagues, is what ultimately allowed the family and their top employees to escape culpability in a series of criminal acts that have been ongoing since 1995. Not only is this a gross miscarriage of justice, but it’s also an indictment of the immense power that wealthy mega-corporations can accumulate and their ability to use that wealth to shield them from taking responsibility, even for crimes they already admitted to previously.

Purdue may have been one of the first pharma giants taken to court for its role in the opioid epidemic. It won’t be the last. And as long as we allow for a system in which extreme wealth can act as a shield to justice, corporations will continue to get away with crimes that affect millions of Americans and their families.

Addiction Treatment: The Importance of Helping Those Still Harmed by OxyContin

interview with an addict

The opioid epidemic is still ongoing today. Millions of Americans are addicted to opioids, and while much of the crisis has shifted to extremely potent and potentially fatal synthetic opioids, thousands of Americans still become hooked on pharmaceutical opioid pain relievers each year. If this has happened to you or someone you care about, please seek help at a drug and alcohol treatment center as soon as possible.

Holding pharma companies fully accountable may take a lifetime. But getting help for an addiction can, and should, happen today.


Reviewed by Claire Pinelli, ICAADC, CCS, LADC, RAS, MCAP



After working in addiction treatment for several years, Ren now travels the country, studying drug trends and writing about addiction in our society. Ren is focused on using his skill as an author and counselor to promote recovery and effective solutions to the drug crisis. Connect with Ren on LinkedIn.