Tuesday, December 1, 2020

Purdue Pharma Pleads Guilty to Federal Criminal Charges Regarding OxyContin (2020)

    For the past few decades, The United States of America has been plagued with an opioid epidemic. Purdue Pharma, the makers of OxyContin, have been known to be greatly contributing to this epidemic, if not causing it entirely. Recently, the company has been charged with several criminal charges, as well as made to pay billions of dollars in fines. As a part of the settlement that was reached, the Sackler family, who has owned the company since the 1950’s, will lose ownership of Purdue Pharma, as it is turned into a public benefit company. 

     All ethical theories would find several issues with the actions of Purdue Pharma. From an individualistic perspective, their actions were those of a typical business trying to maximize profit, however several violations of the law make their actions impermissible.  A utilitarian would also see several issues with this situation, as the biggest concern of utilitarianism is maximizing happiness for all. As will be outlined in this paper, not a single individual in this situation ended up with what one would consider to be happiness. From a Kantian perspective, several actions of Purdue Pharma are considered impermissible, particularly using people as a means to some end goal, as well as practicing manipulation of consumers. Finally, virtue theorist would find concern in the fact that almost all no virtuous traits were carried out by Purdue Pharma, but rather they practiced vices such as greed, dishonestly, and manipulation. 

    Although Purdue Pharma made several unethical mistakes in the marketing and distribution of OxyContin, there are things that can and should be done to fix this problem. By taking responsibility and showing that they have a desire to help those that they harmed, Purdue Pharma has the potential to improve their public image and regain the trust of Americans. 

Ethics Case Controversy 


Purdue Pharma's OxyContin, the meditation that has 
caused millions of deaths and led to the downfall
of the company. 
    Throughout the past couple of decades, the opioid crisis has become characteristic of the United States of America, and Purdue Pharma is being held responsible for creating it. The company has had to admit to “enabling the supply of drugs without legitimate medical purpose” (BBC), meaning that their only concern was selling their medication with no regard to whether it was done properly and safely or not. Recently, Purdue Pharma has been undergoing a federal investigation on the basis of lack of care involved in distributing OxyContin.  This has led to an $8.3 billion settlement to be reached. The settlement emphasizes that “for more than two decades, there has been a widespread problem of overprescribing, diverting, and abusing pain medication in America, while drug manufactures such as Purdue profited from this issue and failed to take responsibility or action” (Rowland). As part of this settlement, the Sackler Family, which has owned Purdue Pharma since the 1950’s, will not only lose ownership of their company, but will admit to “three felony counts for defrauding the federal government by misleading regulators about its efforts to restrict overprescribing of the drug and to violating anti-kickback laws by paying doctors to write more OxyContin prescriptions” (Williams).  A prime example of their wrongdoing was in 2012, when “members of the Sackler family demanded that company executives come up with a plan to generate greater revenue in response to slumping sales. A new marketing plan, called ‘Evolve to Excellence’ was created. This plan involved more intensified marketing of OxyContin to extreme, high-volume prescribers who were already writing ‘25 times as many OxyContin scripts’ as their peers.” (Rowland). While the company agreed to pay huge fines because of this as well as admit criminal liability, the family that owns the company, as well as executives within the company, claim that they "acted ethically and lawfully, and the upcoming release of company documents will prove that fact in detail” (Rowland). 

    This investigation has been ongoing for a substantial amount of time, however a settlement was just now reached due to the presidential election, but some are saying that it was far too rushed, and feel as if Purdue Pharma should have suffered more consequences for their actions. The Justice Department was pushed to settle a large number of outstanding cases involving major corporations, as “Administrations often seek to resolve significant cases as they near the possible end of their time in office, and with Election Day drawing near, the Trump administration has pushed to finalize a number of such matters this month” (Rowland). Massachusetts attorney Maura Healy stated that she believes that the Justice Department has failed, because “justice, in this case, requires exposing the truth and holding the perpetrators accountable, not rushing a settlement to beat an election” (Rowland). 


    The substantial amount of money that will be paid in this settlement will be used to redress past wrongdoings, as well as provide new resources for treatment and care of those impacted by OxyContin. Furthermore, Purdue Pharma will be turned into a Public Benefit Company, “meaning it will be governed by a trust that has to balance the trust’s interests against those of the American public and public health” (Balsamo). This comes as a relief to many, as the Sackler family has evidently caused an abundance of problems for the American public, and thus, they will no longer have control of their company. 

Timeline of Events 



    There are countless stakeholders in this situation, including people who currently suffer or have previously suffered from addiction to OxyContin, the family and friends of people facing this addiction, the Sackler family, and the American population in general. People who have faced addiction to OxyContin largely have Purdue Pharma to blame, because if the medication was marketed and distributed properly, it’s likely that they would not have had a problem with it at all. Brooke Feldman, who is in recovery from opioid use disorder, stated that she “is glad to see Purdue admit wrongdoing. She said the company has acted for years as a ‘drug cartel’” (Balsamo). Many people who have faced addiction have lost a lot from this situation, including their jobs, relationships with family and friends, and some even losing their lives, which makes them one of the primary stakeholders in this situation. 

Protesters stage a "die-in" inside Harvard's
Arthur M. Sackler Museum to protest the Sackler's
involvement in the opioid crisis.

    Furthermore, families who are impacted by a member suffering abuse of the drug are also stakeholders, as many have lost someone they love due to the company’s wrongdoings. Ed Bisch, “who lost his 18-year-old son to an overdose nearly 20 years ago, said he wants to see people associated from Purdue prosecuted and was glad that the Sackler family wasn’t granted immunity” (Balsamo). Along with millions of others, Bisch blames the company and the family for the millions of deaths that have occurred, and has noted that “If it was sold for severe pain only from the beginning, none of this would have happened…but they got greedy” (Balsamo). 

    The Sackler family and other top executives are stakeholders because not only were they the decision makers in this case, but they also lost billions of dollars, as well as their company. Since they were the ones who chose to market their product aggressively, bribe medical professionals, and not take precautions to ensure the use of their product was safe and controlled, they ultimately made the decisions that made their company suffer. Because of that, and because they are also at a loss, they are considered stakeholders in this situation as well.

    Lastly, the American public are stakeholders in this situation as well. On top of having to be careful not to abuse OxyContin if they get prescribed it, Americans also have to watch people that they know and care about suffer from addiction. Many people, even if they are in severe pain, do not even want to get OxyContin prescribed to them because of how addictive it is. Since many have to live in fear, as well as watch many Americans suffer from OxyContin addiction, the general American public can be considered stakeholders in this situation as well. 



    From an Individualistic perspective, there is wrongdoing involved with Purdue Pharma’s actions in the marketing and lack of responsibility in distributing OxyContin. Individualism, the theory created by Milton Friedman, emphasizes that “business actions should maximize profits for the owners of a business, but do so within the law” (Salazar 17). The aggressive marketing of OxyContin would not be seen as unethical from an Individualistic point of view, but rather beneficial to the company. The problem, however, is that Purdue Pharma used unlawful tactics in order to market their product. Purdue admitted to not only “violating federal anti-kickback laws by paying doctors to induce them to write more prescriptions, but also that it “impeded the Drug Enforcement Administration by falsely representing that it had maintained an effective program to avoid drug diversion and by reporting misleading information to the agency to boost the company’s manufacturing quotas” (Balsamo). Because they have violated several laws in order to make profit, this is not permissible under individualism. 


    Aside from the illegal aspect, the goal of their marketing was simply to maximize profit, which is the overall goal of Individualism. Since this theory is more so about the business and business owners rather than the consumers, there is nothing wrong with causing millions of addictions and deaths, according to Individualism. As long as the business is actively trying to maximize their profit, and doing so within the law, it is seen as permissible. 


    Although “Friedman held that it is the aim and the responsibility of businesses to maximize their

profits” (Salazar 18), Purdue Pharma was still in the wrong from an Individualistic point of view. Although consumers were undoubtedly harmed, that does not matter in and Individualistic sense, unless the law is broken. Since the marketing was not done within the law, however, this is not permissible under Individualism. 



    Utilitarianism emphasizes ‘maximizing the overall good’ or, in a slightly different version, of producing ‘the greatest good for the greatest number’. Acts that accomplish this aim are good; those that do not are bad” (Desjardins 29). This essentially means that the main goal is to maximize the happiness of everybody involved. 

    When Purdue Pharma was first beginning to sell OxyContin, their actions may have been seen as permissible under Utilitarianism. The Sackler family, as well as top executives in the company, were profiting off of selling this drug, which evidently causes happiness for them. Doctors were under the impression that the timed-release formula was meant to decrease the likelihood of addiction, so having a drug that reduced pain, while also having non-addictive properties, was seen as a great thing in the medical industry. Consumers, who had been dealing with severe pain before, were given a medication that worked well for reducing pain, which in turn made them happy. 


    Later on, however, almost everyone was hurt by this situation, meaning that it was shown to be unethical by Utilitarians. Consumers began facing addiction or even death due to OxyContin, meaning that family members were losing loved ones because of this drug. People who suffered from addiction were clearly not happy, and the risk of losing one’s life did not cause happiness either. Purdue Pharma was faced with incredibly large fines, as well as having to give up their business, meaning that he happiness from making profit did not last, and they ended up becoming unhappy as well. Since “business actions should aim to maximize the happiness in the long run for all conscious beings that are affected by the business action” (Salazar 17), and nobody remained happy in the long run, it becomes evident that the actions of Purdue Pharma were not permissible under Utilitarianism. Since almost everyone suffered in the long run and nobody came out of this situation with happiness, it can be seen that these actions are not beneficial to any of the stakeholders. This emphasizes that ultimately, the actions of Purdue Pharma were unethical by a Utilitarian point of view. 



    According the The Case Manual, the ethical rule of Kantianism is to “always act in ways that respect and honor individuals and their choices. Don’t lie, cheat, manipulate or harm others to get your way. Rather, use informed and rational consent from all parties” (Salazar 17). Furthermore, according to Kant, “…ethics requires us to treat all people as ends and never only as means.” (Desjardins 38).  Purdue Pharma undoubtedly violated this, as they were using consumers as a means to the end goal of profit. The company did not care that people were becoming addicted to this medication at astounding rates, leading to millions of deaths across America, but rather they used this to their advantage, enabling them to sell more drugs and in turn, make more profit. 

    Although this situation is seen as ethically wrong in both Utilitarianism and Kantianism, it is wrong for different reasons. One of the key differences in the ethical theories is that “Utilitarianism is concerned only with consequences of an action and Kantianism does not make decisions based on consequences, but rather on what Kant calls the ‘Good Will.’” (Salazar 21). This essentially means that just because an action can produce good results, the action cannot be done based on only the outcome. Having Good Will, in this case, means that “…people

have good intentions and use good reasoning to come to conclusions that will 

make their good intentions effective” (Salazar 21). In the case of Purdue Pharma, it becomes clear that their intentions were only good for themselves, and not the consumers. They knowingly harmed millions of people in order to increase revenue, which ultimately benefitted only the Sackler family and top executives at the company. 


    One of the most concerning violations of Kantianism is one of the most important aspects of the theory, which emphasizes that the “fundamental ethical duty is to treat people with respect, to treat them as equally capable of living an autonomous life” (Desjardins 38). By continuing to aggressively market a drug that was known to be extremely addictive, Purdue Pharma was taking away people’s autonomy. Causing people to become dependent on a drug is one of the most clear-cut ways to manipulate people, as well as take away their autonomy. Once consumers become addicted, they keep needing more, which means that Purdue Pharma was making more and more profit off of people’s suffering. Because of this, it is evident that this case is extremely impermissible under Kantianism. 


Virtue Theory

    Similarly to Individualism, Utilitarianism, and Kantianism, the actions of Purdue Pharma would be seen as unethical by a virtue theorist. Virtue Theory, rather than focusing on individual actions, focuses on the character of individuals. The main objective of this theory is to “act so as to embody a variety of virtuous or good character traits and so as to avoid vicious or bad character traits” (Salazar 17), and it is evident that Purdue Pharma did not do that. 


    According to The Case Manual, “A few vices that have been severely detrimental to otherwise savvy and innovative business people are greed, dishonesty, and selfishness” (Salazar 23), and Purdue Pharma has demonstrated all of these. The company showed greed when they went to extreme measures to have their product become more popular. By convincing doctors to prescribe OxyContin more frequently, as well as going so far as to violate the law in order to make more profit, they have shown that they care more about profit than the health and wellbeing of consumers. Furthermore, dishonestly in this situation is rampant. On top of “defrauding the federal government by misleading regulators about its efforts to restrict overprescribing of the drug” (Williams), they have also lied about the dangers of the drug and its addictive properties, putting millions of people at risk. In terms of selfishness, Purdue has put gaining profit above the health of their consumers. They have expressed a selfish need for even more revenue than they already have, and rather than attempting to resolve the problem that they caused, they contributed to it even more. 


    Virtue theory values “Character Traits that Promote Wellness or Flourishing of Individuals within a Society.” (Salazar 22), and it is clear that Purdue Pharma does not promote wellness, but rather neglects it in an attempt to maximize profit. Because they marketed their product so aggressively and promoted the over-prescription of the drug, they were not promoting the flourishing of individuals within society, but rather the downfall. Because of all of the vices they have shown, as well as lack of virtuous characteristics, it is evident that a virtue theorist would view the actions committed by Purdue Pharma to be completely unethical. 

Justified Ethics Evaluation 

            In my opinion, Purdue Pharma’s actions were completely unethical. Not only did they harm millions and millions of people for the sole purpose of making profit, but they also did nothing to stop the epidemic that they created, but rather contributed to it even more. They were well aware that people had become extremely addicted to OxyContin, however, they continued to aggressively market the product, as well as bribe doctors to prescribe it abundantly. By implementing things such as “intensified marketing of OxyContin to extreme, high-volume prescribers who were already writing ’25 times as many OxyContin scripts’ as their peers.” (Rowland), Purdue Pharma put the health and safety of consumers at risk for the sole purpose of increased profit. Furthermore, they broke the law to do these things, by “defrauding the federal government by misleading regulators about its efforts to restrict overprescribing of the drug and to violating anti-kickback laws by paying doctors to write more OxyContin prescriptions” (Williams). Because of this, it is clear that Purdue Pharma made several ethical mistakes, which shows an abundance of negligence within the company. Not putting consumers first, but rather putting their lives at risk, is not ethical, and therefore Purdue Pharma acted completely unethical in this situation. 


Company Action Plan 

    It is evident that Purdue Pharma’s actions harmed millions of Americans. Because of this, there are several steps that must be involved in order to correct their wrongdoing. 

    First and foremost, the family and executives within the company need to accept their wrongdoing and admit to creating and contributing to the opioid epidemic. The family claims that they “acted ethically and lawfully, and the upcoming release of company documents will prove that fact in detail” (Rowland). This is evidently not true, and one of the first priorities when it comes to getting forgiveness from the general public is to admit that they did something wrong. Acknowledging their mistakes is the least that they can begin with doing. By doing this, they will show the American public, as well as those who have faced consequences from OxyContin, that they acknowledge their mistake and know that it was wrong of them.  

     As of now, Purdue is set to transform into a Public Benefit Company. One of the main purposes of this is “to ensure funding is devoted to advanced treatment programs” (Rowland), but also to ensure that the Sackler family will lose control of their company. Because of this, it will be impossible for the Sackler family to change the way they market and distribute OxyContin, since they will no longer have any part in it.

    One of the most important and potentially helpful things that the Sackler family can do to is donate money to families and communities that have been heavily impacted by the opioid crisis.  This is already a part of the settlement, since members of the Sackler family have already expressed a desire to “direct substantial funding to communities in need, rather than to years of legal proceedings…members of the Sackler family have expressed ‘deep compassion for people who suffer from opioid addiction and abuse and hope the proposal will be implemented as swiftly as possible to help address their critical needs’”(Williams). Despite the fact that this is already outlined in the settlement, it could be very beneficial for the Sackler family to donate some of their own personal money. This would not only improve the company’s public image, but it would show Americans that the family truly does care about how many people they have harmed, and are willing to give up part of the profit that they fought so hard for in order to help. 

    If the company wants to be able to remain profitable or be able to increase their profits, they would need to improve their public image and make sure that they are staying within the law. The Sackler family, however, will no longer have the ability to profit from the sale of OxyContin, since they no longer own the company. The Public Benefit company, however, must ensure that they are doing better than the Sackler’s in terms of marketing, distribution, and not violating the trust of the federal government and the American people. 

     Some of the values that need to be prioritized are trust, compassion, customer well-being, and honesty. Trust needs to be prioritized because it is one of the most important aspects of running a business. After the controversy, many Americans do not trust Purdue Pharma, and therefore the new company that will remain manufacturing OxyContin will need to regain this trust. The new company, as well as the Sackler family, needs to show compassion.  It was one of the main things that has been lacking for decades, and ensuring that businesses care about the people that they are supplying to is important, and it helps build trust. After all of the company has done, they need to show compassion and prove to Americans that they have learned from their mistakes. Customer well-being is the most important of all of these values. Because they are pharmaceutical company, that should be their first priority, however it wasn’t while the Sackler family owned it. The new Public Benefit Company, as well as the Sackler family, even after losing their company, need to show that they do care about the well-being of their customers. If that does not happen, then the company will not be able to flourish, and the Sackler family will remain in bad view from the public. Lastly, honesty is important in any business, but pharmaceutical companies especially. Pharmaceuticals have the power to kill people, create addictions, and cause many adverse effects. Companies need to be honest with not only their customers, but the government as well. It needs to be apparent to customers that the company has the well-being of customers as the first priority, and will not practice dishonesty to deceive customers for the purpose of profit. 


     If the Sackler family follows these steps of publicly apologizing, donating money to families and communities that were impacted from OxyContin, and keeping their values aligned, the company has a chance of greatly improving their public image, and potentially gaining the trust of Americans back again. Although it will be hard for them to be completely forgiven, taking steps towards this goal is important. If the family and the company do nothing, then they will be seen as even worse than they already are. 

     It is apparent that Purdue Pharma has made mistakes in the marketing and distribution of their product, OxyContin, that are considered to be extremely unethical. Not only did the company break several laws and lie to the federal government, but they also knowingly contributed to the opioid epidemic that has been controlling America for decades. Many, if not all, of Purdue Pharma’s actions were done for the sole purpose of increasing profits to extremely high amounts, however, they prioritized this over the lives of consumers. When looking at the situation from an Individualistic approach, almost everything is permissible, except for the fact that they broke the law. The ethical theory essentially states that businesses can do whatever needs to be done in order to maximize profit, as long as it is within the law. Because of that, it is obvious that this is impermissible under Individualism. In the sense of Utilitarianism, it is obvious that not everybody is happy in this situation. Not only are there millions of Americans suffering from addiction to OxyContin, but also family members and members of the community are drastically affected from that as well. Furthermore, the Sackler family ended up losing their company and having to pay billions of fines, so they are evidently not happy either. When preparing an analysis from a Kantian perspective, it becomes apparent that this is also impermissible, Purdue Pharma used customers as a means for increasing profits, and harmed them in the process. Lastly, a virtue theorist would also disagree with these actions. They are not practicing virtues that make businesses and people flourish, but they are instead practicing vices such as greed and dishonestly that harm people. Despite the fact that Purdue Pharma made a huge mistake and harmed the American people, there are steps that they can take to make things right. By taking full responsibility for their actions, as well as showing that they regret what they did by making monetary donations to those who have been affected, Purdue Pharma and the Sackler family has the ability to repair their public image, as well as potentially gain the forgiveness and trust of the American people. 


                                                                                                           Julianne Hess








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