Two distinct public health crises shook the United States from 1954 to 2023: nicotine addiction from tobacco products, and opioid addiction starting with Purdue Pharmaceutical’s OxyContin. These crises resulted in millions of deaths and immense costs to the country as a whole. The nicotine crisis ended in a national settlement against four major tobacco manufacturers, which yielded hundreds of millions of dollars for those harmed by these products. The owners of Purdue, however, opted for bankruptcy instead of settlement, keeping the majority of the money made from OxyContin for Purdue’s owners, the Sackler family.
These four tobacco giants and Purdue shared an almost identical trajectory before and during the massive civil litigation that eventually forced them into settlement negotiations with thousands of injured plaintiffs. Both engaged in health misinformation campaigns intended to obscure the inherent dangers and addictive potentials of their respective products, both lobbied government actors to secure their markets, and both eventually faced civil litigation from almost every U.S. state. Despite these similarities, Purdue has avoided a settlement, leaving the public without restitution for the harms caused by OxyContin.
This Article proposes that these differences in litigation results were the direct result of the fundamental corporate differences between the publicly owned tobacco companies and the private, family-owned Purdue Pharmaceuticals. Executives in private companies are insulated from public outrage and outside interference in a way that public executives are not. Due to this insulation, private executives in general, and the Purdue executives specifically, can resort to litigation techniques that benefit the bad actors and leave nothing behind for those harmed. These corporate differences meant that the tobacco companies were forced to settle and pay appropriate restitutions to the public that they harmed, while Purdue, was able to—and did—opt for bankruptcy. Purdue’s bankruptcy left the public without compensation for harm done and allowed Purdue’s owners to enjoy civil immunity despite their direct role in the opioid crisis.
"The Bankruptcy of Purdue Pharma in the Wake of Big Tobacco,"
University of Colorado Law Review Forum: Vol. 94:
1, Article 3.
Available at: https://scholar.law.colorado.edu/lawreview_forum/vol94/iss1/3