The US government secured a criminal conviction against Purdue Pharma in the mid-2000s but failed to curb sales of the drug after Giuliani reached a deal to avoid a bar on Purdue doing business
The US government missed the opportunity to curb sales of the drug that kickstarted the opioid epidemic when it secured the only criminal conviction against the maker of OxyContin a decade ago.
Purdue Pharma hired Rudolph Giuliani, the former New York mayor and now Donald Trumps lawyer, to head off a federal investigation in the mid-2000s into the companys marketing of the powerful prescription painkiller at the centre of an epidemic estimated to have claimed at least 300,000 lives.
While Giuliani was not able to prevent the criminal conviction over Purdues fraudulent claims for OxyContins safety and effectiveness, he was able to reach a deal to avoid a bar on Purdue doing business with the federal government which would have killed a large part of the multibillion-dollar market for the drug.
The former New York mayor also secured an agreement that greatly restricted further prosecution of the pharmaceutical company and kept its senior executives out of prison.
The US attorney who led the investigation, John Brownlee, has defended the compromise but also expressed surprise that Purdue did not face stronger action from federal regulators and further criminal investigation given its central role in the rise of the epidemic.
Connecticut-based Purdue is now facing a wave of civil lawsuits as New York, Texas and five other states have joined a growing number actions against the company. But Brownlee was the first, and so far only, prosecutor to secure a criminal conviction against the drug maker.
Brownlee launched his investigation shortly after being appointed US attorney for the western district of Virginia as the region struggled with escalating overdoses and deaths from opioids in the early 2000s. When he looked at the source of the epidemic he found OxyContin, a drug several times more powerful than any other prescription painkiller on the market at the time.
Purdue turned OxyContin into a multibillion-dollar drug after its launch in 1996 with an unprecedented campaign marketing the painkiller to doctors. OxyContin contained a much higher dose of narcotic than other painkillers because it was designed to bleed slowly into a patients system over 12 hours and save having to take lower dosage pills more regularly. Purdue told doctors that not only was this more effective at subduing pain but it was less likely to cause addiction and more resistant to abuse by people hooked on drugs.
These were important selling points to a medical profession still wary of opioids because of concerns about addiction, and demand for OxyContin quickly surged. But it almost as swiftly became apparent to prosecutors that neither claim was true as doctors reported increasing numbers of people becoming addicted to the high dosage, and that those already hooked on opioids found it easy to extract the narcotic by crushing the pills.
OxyContin became the go-to drug for people looking for an instant high by snorting or injecting.
This was the magic pill, right? This was a long-acting pill that the addicts wouldnt like and you couldnt get dependent on, and that is the magic bullet. The reality is it just wasnt true, said Brownlee. It was highly deceptive and then they trained their sales force to go out and to push that deception on physicians.
Investigators waded through several million of Purdues internal memos, marketing documents and notes from sales representatives. Brownlees office discovered training videos in which reps acted out selling the drug using the false claims. This was pushed by the company to be marketed in an illegal way, pushed from the highest levels of the company, that in my view made them a criminal enterprise that needed to be dealt with, said Brownlee.