Pharma Giant Hit with Criminal Charges and $8 Billion Lawsuit

Purdue Pharma building

Purdue Pharmaceuticals is currently coming under fire for its role in the creation of the modern-day opiate epidemic. After well over a year in litigation, Purdue finally pled guilty to three different charges. And they were criminal charges at that, levied at Purdue for creating a drug that the company leadership knew would be addictive and knew could be fatal.

Purdue Pharmaceuticals is being shut down and forced to pay $8 billion in amends, but many feel this is not nearly enough to make up the damage done by OxyContin and the other drugs that followed. Purdue was the first pharmaceutical company to drastically increase its production, advertising, distribution, and sale of their opioid painkillers (namely OxyContin), so many feel as though the entire opioid epidemic and the hundreds of thousands of lives lost because of it can be traced back to Purdue.

It matters how companies make their money, and as the new lawsuit results show, pharma companies are often making it in a very wrong way. Yet the founders of Purdue, the billionaire Sackler family, are getting off with nothing more than some hefty fines. While it’s good news that the details of just how much Big Pharma caused the opiate epidemic are beginning to come out of the woodwork, can we really say that justice is being served? And will pharma companies be truly held accountable for their actions? That part of the story remains to be seen.

The Lawsuit, Summarized

The lawsuit against Purdue Pharmaceuticals is very significant because this was one of the first legal decisions in which a pharmaceutical company was held criminally culpable for the addictive and lethal nature of its opioid painkiller products. The litigation concluded on October 21st, 2020, a landmark case that may serve as a precedent for future cases against pharmaceutical companies.

While the case sounds good on paper and is undoubtedly a move in the right direction, this lawsuit fell short of accomplishing true justice. For example:

Businessman standing in the closedown office
                            Photo by Image Source/
  • While Purdue is being forced to close down, its assets are merely being reformulated into a “public benefit company.” This new company is allegedly going to “Act in the best interests of the American people.” However, this new “public trust” is still going to produce OxyContin. How is that acting in the best interests of the American people? The new trust will make replacement drugs that are supposed to counteract the effects of addictive opioids while just giving an addict another substance to become dependent on.
  • While Purdue is being made to pay about $8 billion in fines, the company does not have that much cash on hand. Therefore, the funds will be disbursed over time from the profits of the new public trust. Furthermore, it’s unclear where the money is being paid to. The funds should be used to fund addiction treatment services for addicts who are hooked on OxyContin.
  • Purdue made a drug that the company’s owners, the Sackler family, knew was addictive. They knew people would become hooked on it, and they knew some people would die from it. But the Sacklers went forward with their plans anyway, and they are facing no criminal retribution for what they did. They are being made to step down from Purdue leadership, and they are being made to pay a fine, but that is all.

The Opioid Crisis is Still Growing

Shot of plastic medicine bottles
Photo by exipreess/

The disappointing aspects of the lawsuit become even more apparent when we examine what Purdue Pharmaceuticals did that is still causing damage today, as the opioid addiction epidemic is still getting worse across America. Prescription opioid pain relievers have accounted for a considerable share of opiate addiction in America since the turn of the century. Every year up to the present, thousands of Americans still die from overdoses on prescription opioids.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, at least 65 percent of the 750,000 drug-related deaths since the turn of the century have been opioid-related deaths. Prescription pain relievers are not the only lethal drug causing deaths in 21st-century America, but they play a huge role.

And it’s not just deaths and addiction from only pharmaceutical opiates that Purdue and other opioid analgesic manufacturers are responsible for. Studies also show that the vast majority of heroin addicts in the U.S. started misusing opioid painkillers long before transitioning to heroin. So painkillers act as the first step into drug experimentation, a dark path that leads many to hard drug use, overdose, and death.

Another grim truth is that, despite the growing death toll and the simple fact that millions of Americans are literally addicted to pharmaceutical opioids, pharma companies (Purdue included) have been slow to the point of unmoving when it comes to innovating new ways to treat physical pain without the patient having to take opioids.

Addiction Treatment and Justice

It’s easy enough to say that the lawsuit against Purdue is insufficient in its results. But what are the legal experts saying? Connecticut Attorney General William Tong released a statement on the matter, focusing on how Purdue is not being held fully accountable for their crimes. "This settlement provides a mere mirage of justice for the victims of Purdue's callous misconduct. The federal government had the power here to put the Sacklers in jail, and they didn’t. Instead, they took fines and penalties that Purdue likely will never fully pay. Every dollar paid here is one dollar less for states like Connecticut trying to maximize money from Purdue and the Sacklers to abate the opioid epidemic. Preserving Purdue's ability to continue selling opioids as a public benefit corporation is simply unacceptable."

Purdue should be held fully accountable for its actions. It’s not good business to make a business of the misery of others.

Purdue should not be allowed to reformulate into another company and continue to make drugs that will make addicts and cause overdoses. Purdue’s founders, the Sacklers, should absolutely be held criminally accountable for making drugs they knew were addictive.

While there can be no justice and recompense for the lives lost to opiate addiction, a good start would be for Purdue to take full responsibility for those who are addicted to opiates.

But it does no one any good to wait for a mega-corporation to repair its damage. If you know someone who is addicted to opioid drugs, do your best to get them help now.




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.