393517 01: The prescription medicine OxyContin is displayed August 21, 2001 at a Walgreens drugstore in Brookline, MA. The powerful painkiller, manufactured to relieve the pain of seriously ill people, is being used by some addicts to achieve a high similar to a heroin rush. Its popularity among abusers of the drug has resulted in a string of pharmacy robberies nationwide. Armed robbers raid the pharmacies for the painkiller which has a street value of $40 for a 40mg pill. (Photo by Darren McCollester/Getty Images)
Federal prosecutors target Big Pharma in opioid crisis
02:11 - Source: CNN
CNN  — 

The former chairman and president of pharmaceutical giant Purdue Pharma once called people who are addicted to drugs “victimizers” and lamented not being able to publicly blame users for the pitfalls of addiction, according to emails submitted as evidence in a lawsuit filed by the Connecticut attorney general.

The emails between Richard Sackler and an acquaintance were unveiled this week as part of the amended lawsuit filed in April by Connecticut Attorney General William Tong. The lawsuit alleges that the owners of Purdue Pharma, including Sackler, illegally shuffled hundreds of millions of dollars to other Sackler family-owned properties and downplayed the addictive nature of opioids to doctors while pressuring sales reps to market its painkiller OxyContin.

“Actions speak louder than any explanation after the fact, any kind of hedging or, frankly, trying to talk your way out of it,” Tong said Wednesday. “It takes a pretty dark heart to write those emails in the first place. This wasn’t an isolated email. It wasn’t just one email. It was part of a larger pattern.”

Sackler’s attorney, David Bernick, said in a statement Wednesday that the former Purdue Pharma head has apologized for using insensitive language that wasn’t indicative of the way he ran the company.

“These emails were written two decades ago following news reports about criminal activity involving prescription opioids, such as drug store robberies,” Bernick said. “Dr. Sackler was expressing his worry that this news coverage would stigmatize an essential FDA-approved medication that doctors feel is critical for treating their patients in pain.”

The emails from 2001 were prompted by an acquaintance of Sackler’s, who first sent him a note that read, “Abusers die, well that is the choice they made, I doubt a single one didn’t know of the risks.” Sackler replied, “Abusers aren’t victims; they are the victimizers,” according to the now partially redacted complaint.

The pair had another similar interaction that year. Sackler sent the acquaintance – whose name is redacted in the complaint – an article from Time magazine on OxyContin and asked for thoughts, according to the complaint.

“You know what the general ignorant public will say, do away with the drug!! Blame the manufactures (sic), Drs., pharmacist, but NEVER NEVER THE CRIMINAL, HE/SHE, (to be politically correct) is never to blame,” the acquaintance wrote. “Give me a break, lest I THROW UP! The whole thing is a sham and if people die because they abuse it then good riddance.”

Sackler responded with similar thoughts, according to the complaint.

“Unfortunately, when I’m ambushed by 60 Minutes, I can’t easily get this concept across,” Sackler replied. “Calling drug addicts ‘scum of the earth’ will guarantee that I become the poster child for liberals who want to do just want (sic) to distribute the blame to someone else, as you say.”

Sackler was asked about these emails by his attorneys in March at a multidistrict litigation hearing.

“I probably was quite emotional when I wrote e-mails at that time,” Sackler said during the deposition, according to a transcript.

Sackler also said that he’s gotten more information about opioid addiction since he wrote those emails and that his views had changed.

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“At that time I was very concerned that the balance that had been struck by the FDA between the benefits and the risks of strong opioids might be upset, perhaps with terrible consequence for patients and for doctors who wanted to treat them,” Sackler said, according to the transcript.

The initial lawsuit, alleging violations of the Connecticut Unfair Trade Practices Act by individuals and Purdue, was filed in December. In the amended suit, filed April 22 in Hartford Superior Court, Purdue Pharma faces a fifth charge: fraudulent transfer.

Tong, who amended the suit, charged that the company has been moving the money so it could threaten bankruptcy as a way to avoid paying restitution.

“It makes you sick to your stomach,” Tong said. “It’s sickening that people who are so close to this disaster were so callous.”