The Big Pharma firms that helped spawn the opioid crisis must be held accountable beyond token wrist slaps and fines. During the 2008 financial collapse, nefarious lenders largely walked away, but federal prosecutors should not fear filing criminal charges against Big Pharma executives for any wrongdoing where warranted.
Consider the case of Purdue Pharma, which began peddling OxyContin in 1996. Not long after the potent opioid painkiller was introduced, Purdue Pharma learned about "significant" abuses of OxyContin, according to a 120-page internal Justice Department report obtained by the New York Times.
Top company officials received early reports the pills were being crushed and snorted and stolen from pharmacies; some doctors were selling prescriptions. But Purdue Pharma officials have long claimed they were unaware the drug was being abused until years after it went on the market.
Federal prosecutors spent four years investigating Purdue Pharma and recommended that three top executives be indicted on felony charges that included conspiracy to defraud the United States. But top Justice Department officials in the George W. Bush administration did not support the move, and the case was settled in 2007, according to the Times.
Purdue Pharma pleaded guilty to misbranding OxyContin and the three executives — who included the CEO and top medical officer – pleaded guilty to a single misdemeanor charge. The company and the executives paid a combined $634 million in fines.
Meanwhile, prescription drug overdoses have become the leading cause of accidental death in the U.S., killing more people than car accidents or guns. More than 200,000 people in the U.S. died from overdoses involving prescription opioids between 1996 and 2016. In Philadelphia, there were more than 1,200 drug overdose deaths last year on top of thousands of deaths in the years before.
Several Big Pharma firms aggressively marketed the opioids, which have led to spikes in addiction across the country. Many patients initially hooked on painkillers turned to heroin, which is cheaper and more deadly, especially when mixed with fentanyl.
Purdue Pharma is not the only company to get a pass.
Drug Enforcement Administration agents spent two years investigating McKesson Corp., the largest distributor of drugs in the U.S., for failure to report suspicious orders involving millions of addictive painkillers sent to drugstores that found their way to drug rings, according to a report in the Washington Post.
The DEA investigation stretched across 11 states working with a dozen U.S. attorneys' offices. Prosecutors wanted to bring criminal charges, but once again top Justice Department officials struck a deal in 2017 that resulted in a $150 million fine – pocket change for a firm with annual revenue of nearly $200 billion.
Dozens of states – including Pennsylvania, which has taken a lead – are investigating the major opioid manufacturers and distributors.