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Purdue Pharma Is In Talks To Settle Multiple Opioid Lawsuits

DAVID GREENE, HOST:

In our country's opioid crisis, the effort to hold drugmakers accountable really seems to be intensifying. Earlier this week, a judge in Oklahoma accused Johnson & Johnson of using dangerous marketing campaigns and ordered the company to pay close to $600 million to address the crisis. The company is appealing there. Now, settlement talks are underway with Purdue Pharma, the maker of the prescription painkiller OxyContin. Purdue is facing billions of dollars in potential liability. Brian Mann with North Country Public Radio - he covers opioid litigation for us at NPR. Hi there, Brian.

BRIAN MANN, BYLINE: Hi, David.

GREENE: So what is happening with these settlement talks now with Purdue Pharma?

MANN: Right. So Purdue Pharma has confirmed to NPR, David, that these global settlement talks are under way. Just a little context here - the company and its owners, the Sackler family, have already reached settlements at various times over the years with individual states and with the Justice Department worth hundreds of millions of dollars. But this would be different, a much larger scale, settling a couple thousand different lawsuits.

And according to some reports, it might amount to as much as $10 billion to $12 billion, as NBC News first reported. It could also mean the Sackler family giving up ownership of Purdue Pharma, possibly through some kind of bankruptcy proceeding. Details are still thin here. The judge in this federal case who's overseeing all this, Dan Polster in Ohio, has issued a strict confidentiality order, so a lot of the players involved in these talks have declined to speak with NPR.

GREENE: Well, let's talk about, though, this video that seems to be becoming more important. For the first time yesterday, you had ProPublica and STAT news - these two news organizations following the crisis - they released video of Richard Sackler, one of the owners of Purdue Pharma, talking about the company's role in the epidemic. And the video's been talked about a lot. John Oliver did a long piece about it on his comedy show on HBO. And Purdue was fighting so hard to keep this a secret. Why? What is on this tape?

MANN: Yeah. This was recorded four years ago, David. It was a deposition Richard Sackler gave with lawyers in Kentucky, one of the states where Purdue was being sued. And at the time, Richard Sackler was still denying that his company did anything wrong. He says over and over that Purdue's aggressive marketing of these highly addictive pain medications like OxyContin was appropriate. That's his claim. And money comes up. He was asked how much money the company and his family earned from these opioid sales.

(SOUNDBITE OF VIDEO)

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: How much money has Purdue Frederick or Purdue Pharma made off the sale of OxyContin?

RICHARD SACKLER: I don't know.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: Do you know how much the Sackler family has made off the sale of OxyContin?

SACKLER: I don't know.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: But fair to say it's over a billion dollars?

SACKLER: It would be fair to say that, yes.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: Do you know if it's over $10 billion?

SACKLER: I don't think so.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: Do you know if it's over $5 billion?

SACKLER: I don't know.

GREENE: Wow. All right. So Richard Sackler in that video talking about Purdue's opioid profits measured in billions of dollars. Brian, I mean, if this settlement happens, what is the decision of the Sackler family? I mean, they might have to give up control of their family business here.

MANN: That's right. The last few years, of course, have been devastating for the country in terms of opioid deaths. Roughly a quarter million Americans dead now from prescription opioid overdoses. And it continues, dozens of people dying every day. And a lot of the terrible publicity tied to this public health crisis has landed right in front of this company and in front of the Sackler families.

Remember, they were once among the most respected philanthropists in the world, and now their names are being stripped from art institutions. Devastating exposes have been written about them. So this would end that bleeding for the family. I will say, David, that not everyone will be happy with an agreement like this because it could mean a lot of the details of their activities being kept secret going forward.

GREENE: Brian Mann with North Country Public Radio - he covers opioid litigation for us at NPR.

Thanks as always, Brian.

MANN: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.