Federal prosecutors in Connecticut began a criminal investigation into Purdue Pharma Inc.’s marketing of the controversial opioid painkiller OxyContin.
U.S. Attorney Deirdre Daly is gathering documents about Purdue’s claim that OxyContin provides 12 hours of pain relief. A Los Angeles Times investigation, published last year, found that Purdue ignored evidence showing the drug’s effects failed to last that long in some patients, increasing the risk of withdrawal, abuse and addiction.
“Purdue is committed to being part of the solution to our nation’s opioid crisis and has been cooperating with the U.S. Attorney’s investigation,” company spokesman Robert Josephson said in an email. “We will continue to do so until this matter is resolved.”
Purdue is cast as the main villain in a wave of government lawsuits seeking to hold opioid makers and distributors responsible for an epidemic now killing thousands of people and costing the U.S. economy billions of dollars annually. Ten states and dozens of cities and counties have sued companies including Purdue, Endo International Plc, and Johnson & Johnson’s Janssen Pharmaceuticals, alleging that they triggered the epidemic by minimizing the addiction and overdose risks of painkillers such as OxyContin and Percocet.
Stamford, Connecticut-based Purdue invented many of the aggressive marketing techniques that made OxyContin a blockbuster drug and which government lawsuits now seek to frame as unlawful.
Tom Carson, a spokesman for Daly, declined to comment on the investigation.
Purdue resolved a federal criminal prosecution in 2007. The company and three of its top executives pleaded guilty to “misbranding” OxyContin and collectively agreed to pay more than $630 million in civil and criminal penalties in one of the largest pharmaceutical settlements in U.S. history. The company specifically acknowledged that it trained its sales representatives to mislead physicians about opioid risks.
Purdue promoted the synthetic morphine substitute as a low-risk painkiller, according to court papers, although the drug is a habit-forming narcotic derived from the opium poppy.
The executives, former CEO Michael Friedman, General Counsel Howard Udell and Chief Medical Officer Paul Goldenheim, served no prison time and were sentenced to community service in drug rehabilitation centers.
Purdue had emphasized that its plea covered misconduct only from 1995 through 2001. “We accept responsibility for those past misstatements and regret that they were made,” the company said at the time.
Purdue is closely held and doesn’t release financial information, but the brokerage Sanford C. Bernstein & Co. estimates OxyContin alone generated sales of $1.3 billion in 2016. Purdue is also the focus of a Congressional investigation led by Senator Claire McCaskill, a Missouri Democrat, who’s demanding documents and information related to the sales, marketing and education strategies that opioid manufacturers used to promote their painkillers.
Daly was one of the 46 U.S. Attorneys asked in March by Attorney General Jeff Sessions to submit letters of resignation and vacate their offices. She remained in order to complete two decades of service at the Justice Department. Her last day is Oct. 27.
Nominated by President Barack Obama in 2014, Daly has made the opioid epidemic a focus of her tenure. Last year, her office developed a statewide initiative with the Drug Enforcement Administration, probing overdose deaths and targeting dealers who sell heroin and synthetics like fentanyl.
— With assistance by Chris Dolmetsch, and Jef Feeley