A Prescription For Justice

Today I read a couple news stories that reminded me of how disappointed I am that certain aspects of our justice system fall short of delivering true justice. The stories were about separate lawsuits targeting two well-known pharmaceutical firms.  

One of the stories was about the state of Oklahoma suing Johnson & Johnson. The suit said the company and its subsidiaries “created a public nuisance” by using misleading language to aggressively market addictive painkillers, downplaying the risk of addiction. 

An Oklahoma judge determined Johnson & Johnson had indeed practiced such promotion, with dangerous consequences. And the good news is, the judge ordered J&J to pay Oklahoma $572 million in compensation, one of the largest monetary awards in U.S. history, — However the bad news is, this impressive sum is a fraction of the $17 billion settlement that Oklahoma sought and (considering the damaged lives, families and deaths) possibly deserved.  Yes, a Big Pharma corporation was held responsible for egregious misdeeds, but for a corporation that enjoyed $76.5 billion in worldwide sales in 2017 alone, a one-half billion-dollar penalty is peanuts. 

The other drug company story involved Perdue Pharmaceuticals. They are probably best known as the makers of OxyContin. They’ve made a variety of other pain medicines for years, but OxyContin, introduced in 1996 as an “extended release” formula of oxycodone, has been their super seller. It promised 12 hours of powerful time-released pain relief and demanded a price of up to hundreds of dollars per bottle. Once things got rolling, Purdue’s earnings boomed from a few billion dollars in 2007 to $35 billion in 2017. 

Such a successful product made the owners of Perdue richer than ever. Those owners are the Sackler family, who share an estimated fortune of $13 billion. And as I learned in my research, dealing with accusations and lawsuits isn’t new to them.  

In 2007, Purdue Pharma pleaded guilty to federal criminal charges that the company had misrepresented the dangers of OxyContin, and three of their top officials pleaded guilty to criminal misdemeanors. The company and the men paid $634.5 million in fines. In a 2015 settlement, Kentucky received $24 million from Purdue Pharma. And most recently, prior to the Oklahoma court’s judgment against Johnson & Johnson, the Sackler family and Purdue settled with Oklahoma out of court for $270 million.  

As of right now, forty-eight states and Washington, D.C., as well as approximately 2,000 local and county governments, hospitals, and patients have gotten involved in suing Purdue and the Sacklers for allegedly using deceptive sales practices. The complaints have now been consolidated by a federal judge. 

This brings me to the interesting proposal the Sacklers just made to resolve the grievances against them and their company. — Perhaps they see the writing on the wall. For sure, they’re aware of the recent revelations of documents showing they clearly did encourage behavior that helped lead to our opioid disaster. 

The Sacklers are proposing they declare bankruptcy and that Purdue be reorganized as a for-profit “public benefit trust. ” Reportedly, the “public benefit trust” would last for at least a decade with Purdue contributing between $7 billion and $8 billion, some of it coming, ironically, from the sales of drugs that combat opioid overdoses. 

The trust would provide $4 billion in drugs to local and state governments to fight opioid addiction and also provide governments with profits from the sale of OxyContin. On top of that, the Sackler family would give up its ownership in Purdue, and contribute $3 billion to the settlement. – You might notice that this personal sacrifice would leave the family with only $10 billion for their personal needs. 

I would not be surprised if the Sacklers and some of their peers running other Big Pharma firms envision wriggling out of this predicament in a way similar to the model presented by the tobacco industry. That group still has growing sales overseas and has found a profitable new product line at home that continues to deliver addictive nicotine. Those guys lied to the U.S. public for years as they knowingly sold a product that caused sickness and death. Then they lied to congress about their actions. Eventually, their corporations paid huge fines – but they’re still in business.  

At this point in my litany of misdeeds, guilty pleas and settlement payments, you might notice that nowhere is there a mention of any person spending any time in jail. You never see it in the news either, because it doesn’t happen. The penalty they pay is always just…money.  This is where my disappointment surfaces. Corporate crimes require corporate criminals, and they should pay for their actions with a piece of time from their lives. Virtually all other criminals do. 

Outrageous quantities of drugs have been pumped into communities and regions with populations that clearly do not justify the sales figures. People all through the system have known what was going on was wrong – from the manufacturers and marketers to the distributors, pharmacies, doctors and public officials. The national media even reported on it.  

With all the destruction of human lives, the willful ignorance of criminality, the displays of soulless greed…so far it appears that nobody has been held accountable beyond paying a financial settlement – and finding dollars has not been a problem. Get people hooked on a drug, make lots of money from it and, if you’re caught, pay a fine. It’s the kind of system that would make “El Chapo” Guzman envious. 

According to the CDC, last year nearly 49,000 Americans died from opioids. It may not be pre-meditated murder, but these opioid epidemic enablers are definitely accessories to that ultimate crime. They should face the justice of jail time.

Nels Howard, NTD Member Since 1973