New York: A 76-year-old Indian-origin head of a US pharmaceutical major has become the first top executive of a drugmaker to be convicted of bribing doctors in America to prescribe addictive painkillers, fuelling a national opioid crisis which has claimed the lives of tens of thousands of people over two decades.
John Nath Kapoor, the founder of Insys Therapeutics pharmaceutical company based in Arizona state's Chandler city, was found guilty of criminal conspiracy by a jury in Boston, Washington-based National Public Radio reported.
Kapoor, a onetime billionaire, was convicted on Wednesday along with four other former executives of the company.
They face up to 20 years in prison.
Kapoor and his co-defendants were accused by the federal government of running a nationwide bribery scheme.
India-born Kapoor founded Insys Therapeutics in 1990.
Between 2012 and 2015, Insys allegedly paid doctors to prescribe its potent opioid medication and then lied to insurance companies to ensure that the expensive fentanyl-based painkiller would be covered, the report said.
The prosecutors claimed that doctors, who were bribed, often prescribed Subsys -- approved in 2012 by the US Food and Drug Administration only for use in treating severe cancer -- to patients even without cancer. This practice increased the sales for Kapoor's firm.
Kapoor is among the highest-ranking pharmaceutical executives to face trial amidst a national opioid epidemic.
He was arrested on the same day US President Donald Trump in 2017 declared the opioid crisis a national public health emergency that has caused tens of thousands of overdose deaths annually.
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, almost 400,000 people died from overdoses involving prescription or illicit opioids over the past two decades. Opiate overdose claimed the lives of about 48,000 people in 2017 alone.
The guilty verdict could strengthen the cases against other pharmaceutical executives implicated in the opioid crisis, the report said.
"Today's convictions mark the first successful prosecution of top pharmaceutical executives for crimes related to the illicit marketing and prescribing of opioids," US Attorney Andrew E Lelling said in a statement.
"Just as we would street-level drug dealers, we will hold pharmaceutical executives responsible for fuelling the opioid epidemic by recklessly and illegally distributing these drugs, especially while conspiring to commit racketeering along the way," he said.
"This is a landmark prosecution that vindicated the public's interest in staunching the flow of opioids into our homes and streets," he said.
Brad Bailey, a criminal defence attorney in Boston and a former federal prosecutor, said the 10-week trial represented a rare instance in which the federal government used criminal charges to go after corporate executives.
"That's always unusual. That's always an attention grabber. The big issue is the use of racketeering charges, which had been originally designed to go after the Mafia," said Bailey.
The prosecutors argued that Kapoor was motivated by money and willing to put patients' lives at stake to improve his bottom line, the report said.
Insys allegedly targeted doctors with a track record of liberally prescribing opioids, inviting them to participate in a "speakers program", it said.
According to the government, doctors were paid handsomely even if nobody showed up for the lectures, but only if the doctors wrote a lot of prescriptions for Subsys.
Meanwhile, Kapoor's lead attorney Beth Wilkinson said: "Dr Kapoor is disappointed in the verdict, as are we".
"Four weeks of jury deliberations confirm that this was far from an open-and-shut case," Wilkinson said.