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Project Tango: How Oxycontin makers planned to profit off addiction

Since 1999, more than 700,000 people in the US have died of drug overdoses, mostly driven by an increase in opioid-related deaths. That’s comparable to the number of people who currently live in big cities like Denver and Washington, DC. Some estimates predict that hundreds of thousands more could die in the next decade of opioid overdoses alone. Due to these numbers, some people are pointing the finger at Big Pharma for starting the whole thing. And they could be right.

How pharmaceutical companies caused the opioid epidemic 

The opioid epidemic isn’t hard to understand. It can be broken down into ten year increments over the last 30 years.


In the late 1990s and early 2000s, doctors prescribed a prolific amount of painkillers. That caused opiates to become widely misused and then led to addiction. Not just amongst the doctor’s patients, but also amongst the family and friends of patients. Teens would take drugs from their parents’ medicine cabinets, and people would buy excess pills from those prescribed.


The second 10 years, is when heroin really took off. Not surprisingly, the overdose numbers shot up as well. Drug dealers and traffickers took advantage of a new population of people who used opioids but either lost access of painkillers or simply sought a better, cheaper high.


And most recently, we have what we see today, fentanyl. A more potent, cheaper, and deadlier alternative to heroin.

The first 10 years, really set in motion the wheel that would become what we know today as the opioid epidemic. It is where marketing for opioid painkillers was most relevant. In fact, studies have now linked marketing for opioid painkillers to addiction and overdoses, specifically direct marketing to doctors that encouraged them to prescribe more of the drugs. And another study linked an increase in the supply of opioid painkillers to more overdose deaths.

This direct and aggressive marketing continued well after companies realized that their drugs were not safe. They also weren’t anywhere near as effective as the big pharma companies claimed they were. There is little scientific evidence that points towards opioids effectively treating long-term chronic pain as patients grow tolerant of the painkillers’ effects.

Yet even as these risks became apparent over the years, drug companies continued marketing the drugs. So different levels of government are now trying to hold the companies responsible–and get them to help fix the mess they made.

Oxycontin makers want to try addiction treatment 

Unfortunately, the companies had already factored part of that “fix” into their game plan. Not only did companies such as Purdue and Sackler ignore how dangerous their drugs were, they planned for how to treat the addictions they started in order to create even more profit for themselves.

The family behind OxyContin allegedly wanted to try a new venture: addiction treatment.

The plan was titled Project Tango, according to recent lawsuits against the Sackler family and its company Purdue Pharma and a New York Times story by Danny Hakim, Roni Caryn Rabin, and William K. Rashbaum. It was a money making scheme, to profit from solving the same crisis that the Sacklers and Purdue helped cause.

“Pain treatment and addiction are naturally linked,” one of the documents said.

The document included a graphic of a funnel, with “pain treatment” at the top and “opioid addiction treatment” at the bottom — a tacit admission that as more people were funneled into pain treatment via OxyContin and other painkillers, more would need addiction care. The company briefly dropped the idea in 2014, the Times reported. But since then, the Sackler family and Purdue have considered offering formulations of the opioid overdose antidote naloxone and the opioid addiction medication buprenorphine, which is, along with methadone, viewed as the gold standard for opioid addiction treatment.

The allegations that Purdue and the Sacklers tried to benefit from the same addiction and overdose crisis that they helped cause is just the latest in hundreds of lawsuits that have been filed against the company, family, and other opioid makers in recent years. Several states are suing individually. A separate collection of about 1,600 lawsuits, largely from various levels of government, has been consolidated by a federal judge in Cleveland in an attempt to reach a landmark legal resolution to the opioid epidemic.

The hope is to hold Purdue, the Sacklers, and others allegedly involved in the opioid epidemic accountable for the crisis and also force them to pay for addiction treatment that could help combat the epidemic.

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