Ever hear of Project Tango? No, it’s not the name of a late-eighties Sylvester Stallone movie, it’s something far less forgettable and far more dangerous. The conspicuously whimsical moniker is, in fact, the name of a plan under which the Sackler family, owners of OxyContin manufacturer Purdue Pharma, made considerable efforts to essentially get Americans struggling with opioid addiction coming and going. Documents, emails and other records that have surfaced in lawsuits from the attorneys general of Massachusetts and New York show concerted efforts on the part of Sackler family to profit off both the sale of prescription painkillers and the treatments that were offered once opioid addiction hit crisis proportions.
First A Little Context…
The recent court filings represent only the latest in a slew of incidents that chronicle the Sackler family’s wrong-side-of-history legacy regarding American opioid addiction. in 2007, Purdue Pharma pled guilty to misrepresenting OxyContin’s potential for abuse, diversion and addiction, a federal felony which resulted in a judgment of approximately $600 million in civil and criminal penalties. Since then, the company has done little to tamp down their marketing efforts and have been ensnared in various other legal and public-relations controversies related to opioid fatalities in the United States.
The Sacklers have deep roots in the philanthropic community, and have been continuous patrons of the arts, a legacy that critics of their involvement in opioid addiction escalation have been trying to reconcile. Members of the family are also named in lawsuits filed in Connecticut, Rhode Island and Utah. Last month, a group of 500 plaintiffs named the Sacklers in a case in the Southern District of New York that bundled together over 1,600 opioid-related cases.
What Have We Learned from the Most Recent Court Documents?
Perhaps the most alarming and egregious revelation from the two recent lawsuits is that of the aforementioned Project Tango. In documents unearthed in the New York complaint, the company outlined the interconnected nature of opioids, addiction and the need for treatment, and blatantly outlined the potential to cash in on all three. One Project Tango document expressly said that pain treatment and addiction are naturally linked, and depicted a funnel graphic with the fat end labeled “pain treatment” and the narrow end labeled “opioid addiction treatment.” The document also revealed discussion of Purdue’s potential to be an “end-to-end” pain provider, with Dr. Kathe Sackler, one of the eight family members sitting on Purdue’s board, pushing for the pursuit of such ambitions.
Other key takeaways from the recent lawsuits include Mortimer Sackler’s 2011 email correspondence demanding to know why the company wasn’t selling more opioids, including inquiries regarding how to sell generic versions to lower-income patients; former Purdue president and current board member Richard Sackler’s aggressive 2011 push to market opioids to the medical community, despite regulatory issues and an email discounting the need for a warning label on prescriptions; and a 2014 confidential memo from the now-deceased Raymond Sackler about Purdue’s strategy for placing patients on high doses of opioids for extended periods of time.
The Sacklers have characterized claims related to Project Tango and others that suggest their culpability in the escalation of opioid addiction as “demonstrably false”, saying that no board member proposed Project Tango or authored any supporting documents. The fact remains, however, that when the FDA approved OxyContin in the mid 1990s, Purdue pharma has consistently downplayed the addictive properties of the drug, marketing it as a long-acting painkiller that was less addictive than shorter-acting rivals like Percocet and Vicodin. 24 years and hundreds of thousands of overdoses later, those claims have also been found to be “demonstrably false.”
Only time, money and extensive litigation will determine the legitimacy of claims related to Project Tango or the extent to which the Sackler family is responsible for escalating American opioid addiction. What is clear, however, is the enormity of the problem and the glaring need for multilateral intervention, including treatment, enforcement and prevention. While regulators and other stakeholders are trying to figure who’s responsible for opioid addiction, it’s also helpful to focus on what can be done to reverse course going forward.