ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:
The opioid crisis in America has killed more than 450,000 people. And now one of the companies that created the crisis is having to give back. The Justice Department today announced what they are calling a historic settlement with Purdue Pharma. That's the company that makes the highly addictive opioid medication OxyContin. Purdue will plead guilty to three criminal charges and pay more than $8 billion to help communities hurt by the addiction crisis. Critics say this doesn't go far enough to punish the owners of Purdue Pharma. NPR addiction correspondent Brian Mann joins us to talk about this.
BRIAN MANN, BYLINE: Hi. How are you?
SHAPIRO: All right. This has been a long time coming. What does Purdue Pharma admit doing wrong in this agreement?
MANN: (Inaudible) has this really troubled history. They've had run-ins with the law in the past. And in this case, what they admit is that in just the last few years, they worked to convince doctors to overprescribe their opioid medications. They also misled the DEA about their internal controls that were supposed to make sure opioids didn't wind up in the wrong hands. In fact, a lot of Purdue's drugs were diverted and misused. So Jeffrey Rosen, the assistant U.S. attorney general, said today the punishment will be severe, totaling more than $8.3 billion in civil and criminal penalties.
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JEFFREY ROSEN: The resolution here is very significant. It involves, for the company, three felony guilty pleas. For both the company and the shareholders, it involves very sizable amounts of money.
MANN: And I should say that the Sackler family, who own Purdue Pharma, have also agreed to give up control. If this deal is finalized, it would, in the future, be run as a kind of public trust, a public benefit corporation, again, if this is finalized.
SHAPIRO: Let's talk more about the Sackler family. They became one of the richest families in America by selling OxyContin and other opioid medications. And according to some government officials, they pulled billions of dollars out of Purdue Pharma before the company went into bankruptcy. What punishment will the family face?
MANN: Well, the family has agreed to pay roughly $225 million out of their personal wealth. Critics of the deal say that's not nearly enough given the amount of damage that Purdue Pharma's practices caused to people's lives over the years. Here's Josh Stein. He's North Carolina's state attorney general. He spoke today with NPR.
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JOSH STEIN: The Sackler family extracted more than $10 billion out of Purdue Pharma, and they are walking away essentially unscathed. They simply must be forced to pay.
MANN: Stein and a couple of dozen other state attorneys general have gone on record opposing this Justice Department deal. They're hoping a federal bankruptcy judge who's overseeing Purdue Pharma's case will reject the deal.
SHAPIRO: Brian, help us understand. Government officials have said that the pharmaceutical industry acted like drug dealers pushing these opioid medications. The company now is admitting to criminal wrongdoing. Lots of drug dealers are in prison. Why isn't anyone going to prison in this case?
MANN: Yeah. There's a lot of public outrage over this. The simple reality is that proving criminal wrongdoing involving corporations is really difficult. It's very different from civil trials, where the burden of proof is much easier. I spoke about this with Adam Zimmerman today. He's a law professor at Loyola University who follows opioid litigation. He says it is meaningful that the Justice Department is still investigating personal conduct by some of the individuals at Purdue Pharma. U.S. attorneys say they could theoretically bring more criminal charges later.
ADAM ZIMMERMAN: I think we should be upset if the story ended here. If this was all that happened, then we really should be upset. But tomorrow's another day. You know, the federal government hasn't precluded the idea that they might bring criminal cases later on. The state AGs are still investigating criminally, so the story isn't over.
MANN: And I should say that New York's Attorney General Letitia James came out today and said, in fact, her probe of the Sacklers will continue.
SHAPIRO: You know, the opioid addiction crisis itself has been overshadowed by the pandemic, but it has certainly not gone away. Can you tell us more about what's happening right now and whether this money could help communities that are struggling with addiction?
MANN: Yeah. Things are still really bad. The federal government says more than 72,000 people died last year from overdoses around the country, many of those involving opioids, so this epidemic is still raging. If this money begins to flow through this settlement, it could bring relief. The problem is that everyone agrees it's not enough. The total cost of the opioid epidemic will likely run into the hundreds of billions of dollars. So while $8 billion sounds like a lot, it doesn't match up against the human cost of these drugs.
SHAPIRO: That's NPR's Brian Mann, our addiction correspondent, talking about today's Justice Department settlement with Purdue Pharma.
MANN: Thank you.
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