Did the federal government bungle a chance to head off the opioid epidemic in 2007?
That was one of the questions raised in a recent New York Times report noting that the government settled a case involving Purdue Pharma’s marketing practices 11 years ago when it could have pursued felony charges and prison time for three executives. At issue then, as today, was how much the executives knew about opioids’ addictive qualities and whether they put the quest for profits above the public good.
The report by Barry Meier, who also recently published a book on the topic, is a grim reminder of what can happen when the government fails to perform its fundamental job of safeguarding the public welfare. Tens of thousands of lives might have been spared if the government had grasped the escalating threat of opioids more than a decade ago and mounted a muscular response. The trickle-down effects, such as saving the money now spent on treatment programs and preserving families torn apart by drugs, also would have been significant.
Mr. Meier reported that Purdue Pharma had reason to believe as early as 1997 that its opioids were ripe for abuse, partly because they contained higher narcotic levels than competitors’ drugs. That is earlier than the company has acknowledged knowing about abuse of its signature drug, OxyContin, and it would support claims by municipalities that various drugmakers flooded them with opioids despite knowing the risk.
Because of concern about Purdue Pharma’s marketing practices, federal prosecutors in 2006 wanted a trio of executives to face felony charges and possible prison time. That would have been a wake-up call to the pharmaceutical industry to more carefully manage the distribution of opioids. But the prosecutors were overruled by superiors in the Justice Department.
In the end, the Justice Department accepted a settlement in which the company pleaded guilty to a felony charge of “misbranding” OxyContin and agreed to pay $600 million in fines and other penalties. Three executives pleaded guilty to misdemeanor counts requiring them to perform community service and collectively pay $34.5 million. A potentially transformative case ended with a thud.
There is no making up for lost time, but the evidence prosecutors gathered years ago still can be put to good use. It can be incorporated into civil lawsuits that many municipal governments, including Toledo, have filed against Purdue Pharma, as well as other drugmakers and distributors for reckless dissemination of opioids.
It also is fodder for Ohio Attorney General Mike DeWine and his colleagues in dozens of other states who are are conducting a joint investigation into the drugmakers’ conduct.
It’s disappointing to think that a Justice Department with so many resources at its disposal, including expertise it might have tapped at the U.S. Office of Drug Control Policy and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, failed 11 years ago to see a growing threat and take decisive steps to neutralize it. As Mr. Meier portrays it, culpability for the opioid epidemic runs deep and wide.
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