A member of the family that owns the manufacturer of OxyContin repeatedly gave testimony in a lawsuit that conflicts with details in a report by federal prosecutors, newly disclosed court papers indicate.
Dr. Richard Sackler, who was once president of the company, Purdue Pharma, and is the son of one of its founders, said under oath during a pretrial deposition that he first learned from a Maine newspaper article in 2000 that OxyContin, a powerful opioid painkiller, was being abused.
His statement contradicts evidence in a confidential Justice Department report from 2006 that came to light last year. In the report, prosecutors pointed to a 1999 email indicating that Mr. Sackler was told then that in internet chat rooms, drug abusers were discussing crushing and snorting OxyContin. A Purdue Pharma spokesman stood by the accuracy of Mr. Sackler’s testimony and added that he was unable to comment on the claims in the Justice Department report because the company had not seen it.
The deposition, in a lawsuit filed by the state of Kentucky, was given in 2015 and has been sealed since. On Thursday, two news organizations, STAT and ProPublica, published the transcript of the deposition. Since the case’s settlement in 2015, Purdue Pharma has been fighting to keep the deposition secret.
In a statement, Purdue Pharma, which is based in Stamford, Conn., called the release of Mr. Sackler’s deposition “a clear violation of the court’s order and, as such, is regrettable.” The company also maintained that Mr. Sackler, when alerted to OxyContin’s abuse, immediately took steps to address the problem.
The conflicting accounts of when Mr. Sackler first learned of OxyContin’s abuse could become a contentious issue in the hundreds of lawsuits that have been filed against the company and in the small number of suits brought against members of the Sackler family. Purdue Pharma’s aggressive marketing of OxyContin in the 1990s is widely seen as planting the seeds of the opioid epidemic. Over the past two decades, more than 200,000 people have died in the United States from overdoses involving prescription opioids.
During the deposition, Mr. Sackler was read an email written in November 1999 by a Purdue Pharma sales representative in which the salesperson wrote, “Many physicians now think OxyContin is obviously the street drug all the drug addicts are seeking.”
Mr. Sackler responded that he was not aware abuse was an issue when that email was written. However, it was two months earlier, in September, federal prosecutors wrote in 2006, that Mr. Sackler was told of internet reports of OxyContin abuse.
In the same deposition, Mr. Sackler testified that he recalled “never hearing about” significant abuse of OxyContin’s predecessor drug, a morphine-based painkiller sold under the brand name MS Contin.
That is also contradicted by the 2006 report, in which federal prosecutors pointed to emails and reports sent to Mr. Sackler and other family members in the late 1990s showing that there was significant abuse of MS Contin in Canada and other countries.
As part of the deposition, Mr. Sackler was also shown internal marketing documents that suggested Purdue Pharma was promoting OxyContin as a less powerful opioid than morphine. In fact, it is two times stronger than morphine. In his responses, Mr. Sackler claimed that the promotions were not efforts to mislead doctors into thinking OxyContin was a safer drug but to avoid any comparisons of it to morphine, which was viewed as a drug given to dying cancer patients.
“The whole context was not to stigmatize oxycodone in a way that morphine was stigmatized,” Mr. Sackler said, referring to the active ingredient in OxyContin.
Last year, The New York Times first disclosed the content of a secret Justice Department memorandum containing the results of the government’s four-year investigation into Purdue Pharma’s illegal marketing of OxyContin.
Based on their findings, the prosecutors recommended in 2006 that three top company executives be indicted on felony charges. But in 2007, the government settled the case and allowed the three executives to plead guilty to misdemeanor charges. At that time, the prosecution memo was never disclosed.
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