There have been countless articles and news reports over the past decade decrying what’s come to be known as the “opioid epidemic,” a term describing the negative influences of opioid drug addiction on individual lives as well as American culture and society.
In the media—and, now, in the courts—some of the primary finger-pointing about who’s responsible for this epidemic has been aimed at drug manufacturer Purdue Pharma, which makes one of the most famous opioid painkiller brands, OxyContin. As part of a plea settlement, Purdue Pharma will “plead guilty to federal criminal charges” and pay more than $8 billion, according to various media reports about the settlement agreement.
As part of the settlement, Purdue Pharma pled guilty to three counts, including conspiracy to defraud the United States, which stems from accusations that the company “violated federal anti-kickback laws …”
The primary people behind Purdue Pharma, the Sackler family, many of whose members have served as both owners and board members of Purdue Pharma, may still face independent criminal liability. According to the same reports, that investigation is ongoing. In the meantime, the Sackler family will be stripped of company control, and the company will be governed by a trust, which must “balance the trust’s interests against those of the American public and public health …”
Speaking about the situation and the settlement, Purdue Pharma board Chairman Steve Miller said, “Purdue deeply regrets and accepts responsibility for the misconduct detailed by the Department of Justice in the agreed statement of facts …”
While no members of the Sackler family are currently on the board, they remain the company’s owners and have said they did nothing wrong. According to Forbes, members of the Sackler family have said they “acted ethically and lawfully …” expressing “deep compassion for people who suffer from opioid addiction …” adding that internal documents made public by these legal proceedings will prove that out.
Deputy U.S. Attorney General Jeffrey Rosen said this settlement was “a very steep price to pay for what occurred …” However, some prosecutors, including Connecticut Attorney General William Tong, pointed an accusing finger at the Sacklers, saying justice hasn’t quite been served in this case, “The federal government had the power here to put the Sacklers in jail, and they didn’t… Instead, they took fines and penalties that Purdue likely will never fully pay …”
And it’s this kind of statement that tends to take root in the public sentiment. Listening to consumers and politicians railing about “Big Pharma” and “drug prices,” and it’s a cinch to figure out that there is a very shallow well of sympathy among the average American for pharmaceutical companies. Many openly assume those companies that make the drugs that work miracles for their health are “only in it for the profits” and “care little” about “real people.”
It’s this sentiment, shared by many consumers, bolstered by public statements by Tong and other critics of the decision, that will continue to pose a public relations challenge for Purdue and other pharmaceutical companies as this case and others like it continue to make headlines.
Ronn Torossian is CEO of 5WPR, a leading PR agency.