In this Aug. 17, 2018 file photo, family and friends who have lost loved ones to OxyContin and opioid overdoses protest outside Purdue Pharma headquarters in Stamford, Conn. The wealthy family who owns the company that makes OxyContin says Massachusetts got the facts wrong in a lawsuit. Legal papers made public Tuesday, April 2, 2019, represent the first time the Sackler family, who owns the Connecticut-based Purdue Pharma, has responded in court to allegations about its role in the opioid crisis. (AP Photo/Jessica Hill, File)

Family behind OxyContin calls opioid suit false, misleading

Opioids, including illicit drugs such as heroin and fentanyl, were involved in 48,000 deaths in 2017

Massachusetts authorities created a false picture of the Sackler family’s role in promoting OxyContin, the Sacklers said Tuesday in their first court response to allegations that individual family members — not just their company, Purdue Pharma — helped fuel the deadly opioid epidemic.

The Sackler family says a lawsuit filed by Massachusetts Attorney General Maura Healey that accuses Connecticut-based Purdue Pharma and the family of hiding the risks of opioids from doctors and patients is riddled with inaccurate and misleading statements. The Sacklers are accusing Healey of cherry picking from hundreds of internal documents in an attempt to wrongly vilify the family for the public health crisis.

“We are confident the court will look past the inflammatory media coverage generated by the misleading complaint and apply the law fairly by dismissing all of these claims,” they attorneys said in a statement.

Among the statements the family says were misconstrued is Richard Sackler’s remark that the 1996 OxyContin launch party would be “followed by a blizzard of prescriptions that will bury the competition.” Attorneys for the family say Richard Sackler was alluding to the fact he was late for the event because of a blizzard.

READ MORE: Maker of OxyContin agrees to $270M Oklahoma settlement

The Massachusetts lawsuit is one of some 2,000 filed in the past few years seeking to hold the drug industry responsible for a deadly national opioid crisis. Opioids, including illicit drugs such as heroin and fentanyl, were involved in a record 48,000 deaths in 2017, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. That’s more than the number of people killed in car crashes.

Massachusetts’ lawsuit accuses Purdue and the Sacklers of pushing to keep patients on the drug longer despite evidence that it was contributing to the opioid crisis in order to rake in billions of dollars in profits. Healey vowed Tuesday to continue working to “expose the conduct that hurt so many families in Massachusetts.”

“Our complaint makes clear the role that Purdue’s executives and directors played in creating and profiting from the opioid crisis. Their motions are an attempt to avoid accountability,” she said in a statement.

Richard Sackler’s comment about the “blizzard of prescriptions” was made public in legal documents filed in January by Healey’s office, and since then in other filings including one made last week by the state attorney general in New York, to show that the family was pushing for big sales of OxyContin even though it knew the drug could pose an addiction danger.

Massachusetts, the family says, “mischaracterizes and selectively quotes from the hundreds of documents it cites to create the false impression” that the Sacklers and others who have been on the board “micromanaged every aspect of Purdue’s marketing strategy.” The claim that Richard Sackler accompanied sales representatives pitching OxyContin to doctors, for instance, was untrue, the Sacklers say.

The Sacklers also try to distance themselves from the workings of the company it owns, saying family members were being informed of Purdue Pharma’s issues rather than controlling every detail of operations.

For instance, Healey’s lawsuit said the family considered a plan called Project Tango to get into the business of selling anti-addiction drugs as a way to further profit off a crisis it helped spark. The idea, the family said, was pitched by an outside investment firm encouraging Purdue to buy a company that already made the anti-addiction drug. The purchase of the company never happened.

The lawyers say the directors were repeatedly told Purdue was fully complying with legal requirements.

The family, one of the nation’s wealthiest, argues that Massachusetts’ claims should be dismissed because the facts don’t support them.

“Mischaracterizing facts does not change them,” the attorneys wrote.

Both the Massachusetts complaint and the family’s response rely on documents that have not been made public. The family filing is also heavily redacted at the behest of court orders obtained by Purdue.

Last week, the Sackler family agreed to pay $75 million over five years as part of Purdue’s settlement with the state of Oklahoma, even though family members were not named in the suit.

Days later, the New York attorney general added the family to its lawsuit , asserting that some of the family’s payments from the company — at least $4 billion from 2007 through last year — were fraudulent because Purdue knew about the potentially costly lawsuits it was facing.

Purdue officials have considered bankruptcy as the potential liabilities from the lawsuits have grown.

The public pressure on the Sacklers has mounted in other ways.

Britain’s Tate museums and New York’s Guggenheim Museum, where the family has been major donors, announced they would stop taking gifts from the family. And Tufts University, which has a graduate school of biomedical sciences named for the family, said it was evaluating the relationship.

Geoff Mulvihill And Alanna Durkin Richer, The Associated Press

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