Oxycontin maker Purdue Pharma cultivated sympathetic writers and funded think tanks as part of an aggressive media campaign aimed at countering negative stories about its blockbuster opioid, ProPublica reported.

For nearly 20 years Purdue followed tactics similar to those of the oil and tobacco industries by promoting science that advanced its agenda and shifting blame, the news outlet reported. 

“Purdue’s campaign may have helped thwart more vigorous regulation of opioid prescribing, especially in the decade after the first widespread reports of OxyContin abuse and addiction began appearing in 2001,” investigative reporters found.

Those efforts ultimately failed to save Purdue from thousands of lawsuits filed by states and communities charging the company with fueling the U.S. opioid crisis. The company filed for bankruptcy in September and is seeking a global settlement for as much as $12 billion. The deal being hatched with calls for Purdue’s owners, the Sackler family, to pay at least $3 billion.

During that time, while more than 200,000 died from overdoses related to prescription opioids, Purdue was helped in that effort by Dezenhall Resources, a PR firm known for working with  former Enron CEO Jeffrey Skilling and Exxon Mobil as it battled environmental criticism.

Part of Purdue’s “anti-story” effort included a 2004 New York Times article written by psychiatrist Sally Satel, that argued large doses of opioids were needed by some patients. Satel was a resident scholar at American Enterprise Institute scholar, to which Purdue donated nearly $1 million. An unidentified doctor in the article was a Purdue employee, and Satel cited studies funded by Purdue and written by Purdue employees and consultants.

  • Satel told ProPublica that she did her own research, didn’t accept payments from the industry and reached her conclusions independently.
  • Satel said she was unaware of Purdue’s donations to her employer
  • Purdue told ProPublica that it has held memberships in several D.C. think tanks over the years to “help the company better understand key issues affecting its business in a complex policy and regulatory environment.”
  • The New York Times said that the editors who handled the Satel story no longer work there and that it doesn’t know the details on how the story was handled.
  • Dezenhall’s founder, Eric Dezenhall, wouldn’t confirm or deny client identities, ProPublica said.
  • The Sackler family plans a reinvention of Purdue, the Washington Post reported this month. The company would be transformed into a trust dedicated to battling addiction and deaths by overdose, the paper said, citing court filings.
  • ProPublica earlier this year published secret, sealed testimony from family member Richard Sackler in which he said the company embraced a plan to keep Oxycontin’s strength unknown to doctors.