Is the Purdue Settlement a Win for Harm Reduction?

    The battle to hold corporations accountable for their involvement in fueling chaotic opioid use and overdose deaths in vulnerable communities reached a major landmark after pharmaceutical giant Purdue agreed to a multi-billion dollar settlement and filed for bankruptcy.

    The Sackler Family, owners of the company that manufactured and engaged in misleading and predatory marketing practices for opioids like OxyContin, announced on September 15 that it has agreed to relinquish ownership of Purdue Pharma and pay out $3 billion—a sum much larger than that initially projected (a “hypothetical $1 billion”) by the plaintiffs in the federal lawsuit.

    Settlement funds are planned to be distributed to counties according to their numbers of residents with opioid use disorder and opioid-involved overdose deaths, as well as the the amount of  prescription opioids distributed within the jurisdiction, according to the allocation model proposed by the plaintiffs, a class of cities and counties. West Virginia and Kentucky will receive the most funds under this model.

    Under new leadership, Purdue Pharma said it will provide “tens of millions” of doses of opioid overdose reversal medications, like naloxone and FDA fast-tracked nalmefene—an opioid antagonist that may require fewer doses than naloxone and could more effectively reverse fentanyl-involved overdoses—at “no or low cost.”

    “This settlement framework avoids wasting hundreds of millions of dollars and years on protracted litigation, and instead will provide billions of dollars and critical resources to communities across the country trying to cope with the opioid crisis,” said Steve Miller, chairman of Purdue’s board of directors, in a press release.

    Drug policy experts are skeptical of what the settlement agreement will mean for efforts to reduce the harms of opioid use. “Although settlement money has tremendous potential to help fund programming to address the overdose crisis and its collateral consequences, it still remains unclear how much of this money will go to evidence-based programs and interventions,” Drug Policy Alliance’s Dr. Sheila Vakharia* told Filter, referring to things like syringe service programs and medications for opioid use disorder, such as methadone and buprenorphine.

    “We also have to acknowledge that in the decade since the beginning of the overdose crisis, deaths involve drugs beyond prescription opioids—namely, heroin, fentanyl and stimulants—so that we must engage in a multipronged and multifaceted strategy to reduce the harms of the illicit market and address social determinants of health that exacerbate these harms,” she said.

    Purdue Pharma will now likely be removed from the federal class-action lawsuit that will head to trial in October. Other Pharma giants, like Janssen Pharmaceuticals, Johnson and Johnson, and Walgreens, are still involved in the litigation as defendants.

    *Drug Policy Alliance has funded The Influence Foundation, which operates Filter, through a restricted grant to support a Drug War Journalism Diversity Fellowship. Dr. Vakharia is a member of the board of directors of The Influence Foundation.

    Photograph of Purdue Pharmaceutical’s headquarters in Stamford, Connecticut; by John9474 via Wikimedia Commons

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