OxyContin: the Story Behind the Opioid Epidemic
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Hundreds of thousands of people have died because of the opioid epidemic. Many factors play into this fact, and this book clearly explains them. The story involves the company that owns the patent for OxyContin, the way they intentionally downplayed and lied about the drug’s addictive nature, the way they courted physicians and especially unethical physicians with this faulty information, and the way they equally influenced the FDA to go along on the ride.
The subtitle of this book sets the story rolling. It is, “The Secret History of the Sackler Dynasty.”Who are the Sacklers, you ask? Ultimately, they will be known for their role in the OxyContin story, but before that, the world knew them for their philanthropy.
The family name adorns art museums, universities, and medical facilities around the world. To give just a few examples, there is The Sackler Wing at New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Sackler Center for Arts Education at the Guggenheim Museum, the Sackler Wing at the Louvre, the Sackler Museum at Harvard, the Sackler School of Graduate Biomedical Sciences at Tufts, and the Sackler Library at Oxford. It seems no one knew the source of the Sackler family wealth until now.
The story starts with three brothers in the early 1900’s. Art, Mortimer, and Raymond Sackler. All were doctors and all benefited from the high energy and creative mind of the oldest brother, Art. Before even owning a pharmaceutical company, he owned an advertising company that promoted pharmaceuticals. It is rumored that he was also the silent partner at a rival advertising company. Additionally, he was the publisher of a magazine, Medical Tribune, that looked legitimate, but could easily slant articles to his liking.
Thanks to all this, Art made the family’s first fortune via the advertising campaign he created for Valium.
At that point he bought a pharmaceutical company currently known as Purdue Pharma. Purdue owns the patent for OxyContin. At the time the book was written, it had generated over 35 billion dollars in revenue. It is credited with starting the opioid epidemic in the United States.
As you can imagine, this is a complex story, and the author does a fabulous job of making it crystal clear. There are 82 pages at the end of the book that contain notes and an index. They help readers understand even more. It is easy to see why The Washington Post named if one of “10 Best Books of 2021.”
The book is very unsettling to say the least. One of the most unsettling facts is the way the Sacklers wiggled their way out of law suits for decades. Indeed, they are still in the process of wiggling. When I extend this to other long-running legal sagas in the news – where one side has tons of money – I am disheartened about justice ever being served.
But even more unsettling is the fact that wrong-doing at the FDA is a part of this story. Since the entire nation is currently dependent on the FDA to impartially approve Covid vaccines, etc., this book does not instill confidence.
The most damning story for me was told on page 195. The author maintains that Curtis Wright at the FDA ultimately “had given up his role as impartial federal regulator and [became] a sort of in-house advocate for Purdue.” The author says this based in part on the fact that Wright allowed this statement for the OxyContin package insert: “Delayed absorption, as provided by OxyContin tablets, is believed to reduce the abuse liability of the drug.”
The author shrieks in italics, “Is believed? Believed by whom? It seemed more aspirational than scientific.” Ultimately, Wright left the FDA, went to work for another company for a year, and then joined Purdue. (Fortune.com tells us his starting salary there was $400,000.00 per year.)
To this day, the Sackler family maintains that it isn’t their pills that are getting people addicted, it is the addictive nature of the person instead.
I think this is a bunch of hooey. Read the book. See if you agree.