The Sacklers were drug dealers who put money over morality. The Purdue deal is no different

Chris McGreal
Photograph: Stéphane de Sakutin/AFP/Getty Images

If only we could feel Purdue Pharma’s pain.

The directors and owners of the company that did so much to create America’s opioid epidemic are professing distress and bewilderment at the rejection of what they claim are its good faith efforts to help the victims.

Even as Purdue announced plans late Sunday night to file for bankruptcy, its top officials were making unctuous claims that their concern was to combat an epidemic that has claimed more than 400,000 lives. Anyone who stood in the way was depriving suffering Americans of the help they need, they claimed.

Related: America’s opioid catastrophe has lessons for us all, about greed and racial division | Kenan Malik

Members of the Sackler family who own Purdue have offered to turn over the company to a trust which would funnel future earnings to treatment and other measures to deal with the tragedy. They would also sell Mundipharma, a British-based sister company, and hand over the payment. The Sacklers even said they would give up a part of the huge profits of OxyContin, which made the family multibillionaires.

Some of the state attorneys general and cities suing Purdue have accepted the deal as the best prospect for getting anything out of the company and said the bankruptcy filing was part of the arrangement.

Other attorneys general rejected the move, claiming it was an attempt by Purdue’s owners and executives to hang on to the bulk of the profits of drug dealing and buy their way out of individual accountability. Some of those states are also suing the Sacklers directly.

Whether or not the deal is right for individual states, no one should be fooled by Purdue’s attempts to pretend it is putting the welfare of the victims of its crimes to the fore.

Purdue’s response has been to lament that continued legal actions will drain resources from millions of people whose lives have been wrecked by opioid addiction, whether it is those hooked on drugs or their families who have to live with the consequences.

“This settlement framework avoids wasting hundreds of millions of dollars and years on protracted litigation, and instead will provide billions of dollars and critical resources to communities across the country trying to cope with the opioid crisis,” said Steve Miller, the chair of Purdue’s board of directors.

But Purdue has had many opportunities over the past two decades to help those caught up in the tragedy it forged. At nearly every turn, it put profit first and created more misery.

Repeatedly the company was warned about the havoc OxyContin unleashed. Purdue responded with attacks on doctors courageous enough to speak out, by manipulating the medical profession and by pouring huge amounts of money into staving off action by Congress.

After Purdue was convicted of a criminal offense in 2007 and fined $600m for its sales strategy of rapidly building demand for OxyContin by illegally claiming it was less addictive and more effective than it was, the company might have chosen to sell the drug only to those in real need of it, such as cancer patients.

Instead, its lobbyists on Capitol Hill claimed Purdue had been blackmailed into a guilty plea that was little more than a meaningless business strategy to get the government off its back. Through political pressure it was able to prevent its executives from going to prison and unload the conviction onto a parent company which assured Purdue could go on selling OxyContin much as before. Sales continued to escalate.

Even when Purdue acknowledged there was a problem with OxyContin that made it little different to “pharmaceutical grade heroin”, as former Republican congresswoman Mary Bono described it, the company waited years until a new formulation was ready before withdrawing the original tablets because that would have led to loss of market share and profits.

Through all of this, neither the company nor its owners have taken responsibility for their part in building the biggest drug epidemic in American history. Instead they downplayed the central role of OxyContin and characterized the crisis as the result of heroin and fentanyl, which are a consequence, not a cause of the epidemic.

For a long time, the defense was led by Purdue because there was little public awareness that the company was owned by the same Sackler family whose name was stamped on art galleries and medical research centers across the US and Europe.

Purdue is so burdened down by lawsuits, and its reputation is so blackened by its crimes, that it has no future

Since the spotlight has fallen on the family, the Sacklers have pronounced their “deep compassion for the victims of the opioid crisis” while blaming them for their condition and denigrating them as “abusers”.

Now the family is abandoning a sinking ship. Purdue is so burdened down by lawsuits, and its reputation is so blackened by its crimes, that it has no future as a regular drug manufacturer.

William Tong, Connecticut’s attorney general, spoke for more than just his state when he said Purdue’s owners and executives would not be allowed to use bankruptcy to shield themselves from responsibility.

“Purdue and the Sacklers had a real opportunity to begin to make restitution to victims and their families and people across Connecticut and this country, and to begin to make it right,” Tong said. “Instead, they again chose to prioritize themselves and protecting their wealth instead of meeting their responsibility to provide treatment and prevention. Purdue and the Sacklers could have helped put out the fire that they started and that has engulfed the nation. Instead, they choose to watch it burn.”

Tong’s position was strengthened last week when Letitia James, New York’s attorney general, accused the Sacklers of nearly $1bn of undisclosed transfers from Purdue to a family account in what appeared to be an attempt to squirrel away money beyond the reach of legal actions.

However the civil cases now play out, hovering in the background is the threat of criminal charges against those who made the key decisions within Purdue alongside executives of other opioid makers. If it comes to that, professions of sympathy won’t go very far.