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First it sold Oxycontin, then pharma company saw market for anti-addiction drug, suit says

Purdue Pharma is one of the pharmaceutical companies accused of fueling the nation's deadly opioid crisis.
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BOSTON — Purdue Pharma, one of the pharmaceutical companies accused of fueling the deadly opioid crisis, considered selling an anti-addiction drug to "an attractive market" of people struggling with addictions, according to newly unveiled court documents.

The potentially damning detail was contained in the version of the lawsuit filed against the maker of OxyContin and members of the family that own it by the Massachusetts attorney general's office that Purdue Pharma had fought to keep under wraps.

But on Thursday, Connecticut-based Purdue Pharma lost a legal battle to keep some parts of the lawsuit, which was filed last year, confidential.

Family and friends who have lost loved ones to OxyContin and opioid overdoses leave pill bottles with protest messages on them outside the headquarters of Purdue Pharma, which is owned by the Sackler family, in Stamford, Conn.Jessica Hill / AP file

Purdue is accused of trying to profit off a crisis that it helped spark by having its sales force tell doctors that the prescription painkiller OxyContin had a low addiction risk. The newly released public allegations reveal the company considered investing in suboxone, a drug used to treat addiction.

The suit from Massachusetts is one of more than 1,000 by state and local governments pending against Purdue. A federal judge in Cleveland overseeing lawsuits filed in federal court is pushing for a settlement aimed at stemming the crisis.

Most of the lawsuits name multiple defendants in addition to Purdue, including other drug manufacturers, distributors or pharmacies. The Massachusetts case focuses solely Purdue and the family that runs it, the Sacklers.

It also is the first to make public many of the specific claims alleging that Purdue sought to profit from a crisis that has exploded since OxyContin came on the market more than 20 years ago.

Health officials say nearly 48,000 overdose deaths in the U.S. in 2017 involved some type of opioid, including illicit drugs.

Purdue said the lawsuit is taking pieces of company documents out of context.

"Massachusetts seeks to publicly vilify Purdue, its executives, employees and directors while unfairly undermining the important work we have taken to address the opioid addiction crisis," the company said in a statement.

Jacqueline Sackler and Mortimer Sackler attend a donors dinner to celebrate the launch of the new Serpentine Sackler Gallery in London.David M. Benett / Getty Images file

Juliet Sorensen, a former federal prosecutor in Chicago who is now a professor at Northwestern University's Pritzker School of Law, said "it's great this complaint is no longer under wraps." But she's not sure the revelation that Purdue considered selling suboxone is a "smoking gun."

"What would really be a smoking gun is if there was evidence of a link between the two products, if this was a calculated move to capitalize on a crisis they helped create," Sorensen told NBC News. "I'm not exactly seeing a direct connection between the product they have created and the product they were considering acquiring."

In the lawsuit, the company in 2014 and 2015 considered selling suboxone: "It is an attractive market," an internal memo read, according to the suit. "Large unmet need for vulnerable, underserved and stigmatized patient population suffering from substance abuse, dependence and addiction."

Purdue said in the statement that it was doing due diligence on buying rights to the anti-addiction drug, which was already on the market. Purdue never went into the suboxone business.

Years later, it was still looking for ways to profit from the crisis, according to the filing. In 2017, it considered selling naloxone, a drug that reverses overdoses.

Other claims revealed Thursday from company documents assert that members of the Sackler family paid themselves more than $4 billion from 2007 through last year and that they worked with McKinsey, a drug distribution company, to find ways to increase sales of opioids as authorities cracked down on pharmacies that made illegitimate sales.