The founder of Insys Therapeutics on Thursday became the first head of a major US pharmaceutical to be convicted of bribing doctors to prescribe addictive painkillers blamed for fueling an opioid crisis that has claimed tens of thousands of lives.
John Kapoor, 76, was found guilty of criminal conspiracy, along with four other former executives of the Arizona-based firm.
The former billionaire and his co-defendants, including regional sales director Sunrise Lee, a former stripper, face up to 20 years in prison, and will be sentenced at a later date.
Two other executives pleaded guilty and testified at the trial in Boston which lasted a little over two months.
“Today’s convictions mark the first successful prosecution of top pharmaceutical executives for crimes related to the illicit marketing and prescribing of opioids,” federal prosecutor Andrew E. Lelling said in a statement.
“Just as we would street-level drug dealers, we will hold pharmaceutical executives responsible for fueling the opioid epidemic by recklessly and illegally distributing these drugs, especially while conspiring to commit racketeering along the way,” he said.
In 2017, President Donald Trump declared the opioid crisis a national public health emergency.
Almost 400,000 people have died from overdoses involving prescription or illicit opioids over the past two decades, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Nearly 48,000 people died in 2017 alone from opiate overdose.
“This is a landmark prosecution that vindicated the public’s interest in staunching the flow of opioids into our homes and streets,” Lelling said.
To increase sales of their fentanyl spray Subsys, a painkiller 50 to 100 times stronger than morphine, Insys executives set up a system of large-scale bribes.
Between 2012 and 2015, they paid health professionals to prescribe large quantities of the highly addictive drug, which was approved to alleviate severe pain in terminal cancer patients.
Doctors were encouraged to recommend the spray to patients who did not need it and also in excessive doses.
Officially, the bribes were paid as fees to doctors speaking at seminars for health professionals to praise the benefits of the drug.
The company’s aggressive marketing tactics reportedly also included sales representatives making a rap video to promote the drug.
In some years, Insys paid more than $10 million in bribes in this way. The heads of the firm also set up a scheme to mislead health insurance companies to reimburse patients for the costs of the drug.
According to Insys’ annual report, Subsys sales reached $329.5 million in 2015.
The group went public in 2013. Kapoor resigned from the board in October 2017, a few days after his indictment.