Our Opinion: Big Pharma lawsuit offers opioid insights

The state's lawsuit against Purdue Pharma, manufacturer of the prescription painkiller OxyContin, provides insight into the roots of both the painkiller addiction crisis and the stigma attached to victims. That crisis continues, defying a clear solution despite the many sincere efforts brought to address it.

The suit brought by Attorney General Maura Healey contends that Connecticut-based Purdue and the family that owns the company helped fuel the opioid crisis with an aggressive sales push that disregarded the dangerously addictive qualities of their product. When the addiction and overdose crisis began to emerge, according to a 2001 email revealed in a court filing Tuesday, Dr. Richard Sackler, a Purdue executive and member of the controlling family, wrote that "We have to hammer on the abusers in every way possible. They are the culprits and the problem. They are reckless criminals."

Those words will certainly sting anyone who has fought the ravages of opioid addiction as well as family members who have lost a family member to addiction. They must frustrate the many state agencies that claim the societal stigma against addicts is a major problem they face in helping addicts get their lives back together.

In a statement to the Boston Globe, Purdue accused the attorney general of being in a "rush to vilify" and failing to acknowledge that the company's products have helped millions suffering from chronic pain. The Massachusetts Medical Society in 2015 acknowledged the problem of over-prescription of pain medications but also noted the challenge of finding and maintaining a "fine balance" between avoiding over-prescribing and addressing the legitimate needs of those suffering from severe and/or chronic pain.

Court filings also reveal the close relationships between Massachusetts General Hospital, Tufts University and Purdue. This includes Purdue's contributions to a Tufts teaching curriculum and the company's funding of studies related to painkillers. The filings include concerns expressed by researchers at Mass General about Purdue's objectivity in studies it was funding about the addictive quality of painkillers. Purdue, which according to the state has has sold more than 70 million doses of opioids for more than $500 million since 2007, can assert that it has used its money and expertise to help the two hospitals conduct research into pain treatment.

The lawsuit, while specific to Purdue, provides some general insights into how difficult it is to apply laws and regulations to a problem as complex as opioid addiction, and to an issue as multi-faceted as medical research. It is ultimately up to the individual physician and the individual patient to find the balance between need and risk when it comes to painkillers. Hospitals and universities in need of funding for potentially life-changing research must find the balance between benefiting from the largess of deep-pocketed Big Pharma and being corrupted by it. What can be said without certainty, however, is that branding all opioid addicts as "culprits" and "criminals" is unfair and counterproductive, whatever the source of those smears.


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