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Drugmaker Purdue accepts criminal charges over opioid sales

October 22, 2020

The US drugmaker said it will plead guilty to criminal charges related to aggressive marketing and sales of addictive painkillers blamed for fueling an opioid epidemic in the US that is linked to over 400,000 deaths.

Protest messages on a pill bottle
Image: picture-alliance/AP Photo/J. Hill

The US pharmaceutical giant Purdue Pharma agreed to a plea deal on criminal charges over its distribution practices of the addictive painkiller OxyContin, the US Justice Department announced Wednesday.

Purdue will plead guilty to three counts, including conspiracy to defraud the United States and violating US anti-kickback laws.

As part of the settlement with federal prosecutors, Purdue admitted it "knowingly and intentionally conspired and agreed with others to aid and abet'' the dispensing of medication from doctors "without a legitimate medical purpose and outside the usual course of professional practice,'' according to the plea agreement.

Purdue's synthetic opioid OxyContin is blamed for fueling an addiction epidemic in the US linked to more than 400,000 deaths over the past 20 years.

Read moreUntold health crisis: Coronavirus didn't stop illicit drug use

Purdue is charged with transgressions for giving doctors financial incentives through lucrative speaking gigs to write prescriptions for the company's opioids. It is also accused of paying illegal kickbacks to an electronic medical records vendor that encouraged doctors to prescribe opioids, even when it wasn't medically appropriate.

The Justice Department said Purdue aggressively marketed its opiates through a network of 100,000 prescribing doctors and nurse practitioners. The drugmaker took in more than $30 billion in sales from OxyContin.

What are the penalties?

In the settlement, Purdue agreed to $8.3 billion in fines, damages and forfeitures, according to the Justice Department.

Purdue agreed to directly pay the US government $225 million, which is part of a larger $2 billion criminal forfeiture.

The Justice Department said it would forego the rest if Purdue completes a bankruptcy reorganization and shifting assets to a "public benefit company," which directs the $1.7 billion unpaid portion towards drug treatment and awareness programs in thousands of US communities suing the company over the opioid crisis.

In addition to the criminal forfeiture, Purdue also faces a $3.54 billion criminal fine, although the Justice Department admitted that may not be fully collected because it will be taken through a bankruptcy, which includes many competing claims from other creditors

Purdue will also agree to $2.8 billion in damages to resolve its civil liability.

Members of the billionaire Sackler family, which owns Purdue, have not been charged, although the settlement does not absolve the Sacklers and Purdue executives from potential criminal liability.  A separate Justice Department criminal investigation scrutinizing individuals is ongoing.

wmr/rc (AP,Reuters, AFP, dpa)