Bottles of Purdue Pharma OxyContin. Photo: George Frey/Bloomberg

The New York City government has expanded its lawsuit against pharmaceutical distributors over the opioid epidemic that has impacted communities across the U.S. to include members of the Sackler family, which owns Purdue Pharma, the maker of OxyContin and a group of major retailers.

The city alleges that the Sacklers knew about the risks of OxyContin no later than the summer of 1999 after a Purdue sales representative reported widespread use of the drug, but that members of the family took part in a conspiracy to downplay the risks associated with the drug that included the use of self-destructing emails.

The retailers added to the city’s suit, which is consolidated with dozens of similar suits filed by other local governments across New York State in Suffolk County Supreme Court, include CVS, Rite-Aid, Walgreens and Walmart.

The Sacklers are also defendants in the Suffolk County government’s opioids suit. The retail defendants are also named in the sprawling multi-district prescription drug litigation playing out in the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Ohio.  

In a news release, Paul Hanly Jr., a shareholder of Simmons Hanly Conroy who represents the city and other governments that are suing over the opioid epidemic, said the Sacklers were enriched by the fact that many were not aware of the risks of using Purdue’s prescription painkillers.

“The Sacklers, through their business dealings and ownership of Purdue, have manufactured, promoted and recklessly marketed opioids by omitting critical information that could have saved thousands of lives, communities and families if known sooner,” Hanly said.

A spokesman for the Sackler family referred questions to Purdue.

According to the suit, a Purdue employee conducted research into OxyContin abuse in 1999 and found that users were removing the coating from OxyContin pills and snorting, cooking or injecting them.

The employee’s findings were included in a memo that were sent to the top brass at Purdue, the city alleges, which included Richard, Jonathan and Kathe Sackler, who sit on Purdue’s board of directors.

The city also alleges that members of the family made efforts to downplay the addictiveness of oxycodone and that board members engaged in a sales strategy to get patients to use increasingly larger doses of opioids.

The city alleges that more than 1,000 New Yorkers died in 2016 from an opioid-related drug overdose.

In addition to the Sackler family’s ownership of a drug company that has become the target of state and local governments claiming that opioids killed or destroyed the lives of residents and usurped public resources, the family is known for its prolific philanthropic pursuits.

In New York, the Sackler name adorns a wing of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, an institute for developmental psychobiology at Columbia University and a laboratory at the American Natural History Museum.  

The city filed papers to expand the field of defendants Wednesday, one day after the Massachusetts Attorney General’s Office filed papers in its suit against Purdue and the Sacklers took a hands-on role in suppressing information reports about OxyContin’s potential for abuse. 

In 2007, Purdue and three of its top executives pleaded guilty to criminal charges that they misled patients, doctors and regulators about the dangers associated with the drug agreed to pay more than $630 million in fines and other costs.

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