December 14, 2018

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Deadly doses

Author argues devastating effects of OxyContin came as no surprise to its creators

Liz O. Baylen / Los Angeles Times files</p><p>OxyContin was hyped as super safe, but ultimately was found to be highly addictive.</p>

Liz O. Baylen / Los Angeles Times files

OxyContin was hyped as super safe, but ultimately was found to be highly addictive.

Evil can come among us disguised in Canali suits, Rolex watches and Nordstrom ties. And the moneyed ones always get valet parking.

After all, the evil rich — like the Sackler brothers — can afford it.

But to writer Barry Meier, the two now-dead billionaire siblings — Raymond and Mortimer — are, no matter how fashionably they dressed, the despicable and heartless villains who in 1996 kick-started the opioid epidemic of prescription painkillers that today is ravaging both the U.S. and Canada as the overdosing dead continue to pile up. In the U.S. alone, an estimated 250,000 Americans have died from opioid misuse in the past 18 years.

Meier, as an investigative reporter with the New York Times, was the first journalist to give national exposure to the danger of a Sackler opioid named OxyContin. He says the brothers, educated as psychiatrists, are rightly damned today for starting the painkiller plague in both countries through years of high-pressure marketing and outright misrepresentation of their blockbuster prescription pill. The brothers stubbornly trumpeted the drug as immune to abuse and addiction — even though they knew that wasn’t true.

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Evil can come among us disguised in Canali suits, Rolex watches and Nordstrom ties. And the moneyed ones always get valet parking.

After all, the evil rich — like the Sackler brothers — can afford it.

But to writer Barry Meier, the two now-dead billionaire siblings — Raymond and Mortimer — are, no matter how fashionably they dressed, the despicable and heartless villains who in 1996 kick-started the opioid epidemic of prescription painkillers that today is ravaging both the U.S. and Canada as the overdosing dead continue to pile up. In the U.S. alone, an estimated 250,000 Americans have died from opioid misuse in the past 18 years.

Meier, as an investigative reporter with the New York Times, was the first journalist to give national exposure to the danger of a Sackler opioid named OxyContin. He says the brothers, educated as psychiatrists, are rightly damned today for starting the painkiller plague in both countries through years of high-pressure marketing and outright misrepresentation of their blockbuster prescription pill. The brothers stubbornly trumpeted the drug as immune to abuse and addiction — even though they knew that wasn’t true.

The company used powerful mass-marketing methods, some undoubtedly picked up from their dead brother, Arthur, who was a marketing genius, to take long-lasting opioids from cancer wards and chronic care and reposition them in mainstream medicine by convincing anyone with a prescription pad that OxyContin was reliable and safe and good not just for the worst of pain but for all levels of it, including the most trivial. Its use skyrocketed.

The predatory Sacklers and their wholly owned company, Purdue Pharma, made billions in all the years Oxy thrived as a go-to universal pain killer. Purdue finally withdrew Oxy from the market in 2012 and replaced it a version that was allegedly safer. (Incidentally, in 2010 Canada became the highest opioid-consuming country, per capita, in the world.)

Meier says the brothers over-hyped Oxy as super safe, but learned not that long after introducing it that abusers could dramatically increase its potency and addictive power to life-threatening levels by doing not much more than taking more pills at a time or crushing the pill to snort or inject it. The Sacklers not only ignored what was happening, but kept up a blitzkrieg of mass promotion, puffery, cunning delay, bribery, intimidation, misinformation and obfuscation in order to continue to pocket fortunes, aggressively peddling the pill as the foolproof narcotic they knew it wasn’t. That, says Meier, and the sea change the brothers sought and achieved in much of the medical profession’s attitude to painkillers — from cautious, restrictive employment to a free-for-all of wholesale use — were the two factors that ignited the opioid plague.

Today, says Meier in Pain Killer, one of the opioids of choice is a synthetic named fentanyl and its counterfeit versions, potentially 100 times more powerful than morphine. Opioids are killing well over 100 people a day in the U.S., and have spawned millions of addicts. (According to one estimate, 4,000 Canadians died in the opioid plague last year.)

It’s a good thing the deceased can’t be defamed, because Meier doesn’t hold back in describing the brothers’ conduct and the epidemic they started that continues to cause ever-increasing human misery and death in North America. Purdue Pharma, along with other opioid companies, is facing a growing barrage of lawsuits for irresponsibly fostering the overdose crisis. The U.S. government has now launched a criminal investigation into Purdue’s marketing practices, and there are calls for Canada to do likewise.

Pain Killer was originally published in 2003; this edition has been expanded and updated. The new version contains proof in writing that Purdue knew very early on that OxyContin was being abused. It also contains details of how doctors were pressured by free trips and vacations to employ OxyContin more and more. Purdue also sponsored massive ad campaigns promoting its wonder drug, often offering doctors a trial 30-day supply free. It sometimes hired its critics — presumably to shut them up — and would one way or another buy off detractors and complaining locals as much as they could. The lines between responsible medicine and hucksterism were further blurred through sponsoring amenable medical associations and physicians as spokespeople to tout the drug.

It might have been fairer of Meier to make some mention of the good OxyContin has done for people who didn’t misuse it. Just citing a few cases of where the drug provided much-needed respite from chronic pain and agony among terminal patients would have been sufficient.

But that by no means justifies the Sacklers’ conduct.

Addicts live in a terrifying world. They can’t live with their addiction and they can’t live without it. And all of us could have lived without the Sacklers.

Barry Craig is a retired journalist.

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