The Sackler family already has many sins to atone for. First off, they were responsible for developing most of the sneaky tricks used in drug marketing: e.g., direct-to-consumer advertising to deceive patients; an army of drug sales people to deceive doctors, co-opting thought leaders, and promoting throwaway “science” reported in throwaway journals.
The Sackler’s were also behind the wolf-in-sheep’s-clothing strategy that allowed benzodiazepines to become among the most popular drugs in America – starting in the 1970’s and continuing unabated till today.
The trick here was pushing benzos as a harmless panacea for the anxiety inherent to the human condition. Benzos have turned out to be more poison than panacea: addicting millions; causing terrible withdrawal symptoms; frequent severe complications; and many overdose deaths in combination with opioids and alcohol.
It Gets Worse…
But the worst Sackler nightmare was the most recent. Promoting the opioid epidemic during these past twenty years must be considered the most unforgivable of all the many Sackler sins.
They have been directly and indirectly responsible for hundreds of thousands of overdose deaths and millions of addictions. The story is most completely and vividly told in this brilliant New Yorker piece, “The Family That Built An Empire Of Pain.”
The Sacklers have always been world class philanthropists, hoping to reputation-launder by donating billions in blood money to more than forty prestigious museums and universities all around the world.
But never once have they donated a dime to support the treatment of those victimized by their drug dealings.
The Latest Outrage
Dr. Richard Sackler has been the most prominent of the Sackler’s in running the family-owned drug business – Purdue Pharma – and in cashing in on its billions of dollars’ worth of ill-gotten gains. Now Richard has figured out a way to double dip. Having earned billions promoting the opioid epidemic, he now plans to benefit even further from efforts to contain it.
Dr. Sackler, along with five other inventors, was recently awarded a patent for a new formulation of buprenorphine that can be used in treating the addictions his products have caused. The patent claim is for an under-the-tongue wafer that may provide especially fast absorption.
You would think Sackler might donate his share of the loot to opioid related charities – if not from heartfelt remorse, at least as a smart public relations move.
His greedy effort to reap even more profit from the tragedies he has caused has, not surprisingly, elicited widespread and just criticism. But no; the Sackler’s seem impervious to naming and shaming. And Purdue’s response has been paltry: charitable contributions of a few million so local sheriffs have slightly greater access to the naloxone needed to reverse overdoses.
The disproportions are striking. OxyContin revenues approach forty billion dollars and the Sackler’s have given away billions in world class philanthropy. But their contributions to opioid-related causes have been a paltry few million and nothing at all to provide free addiction treatment.
What’s the Solution?
In any fair world, the Sackler’s would devote all their future charitable efforts forever toward the one goal of providing free treatment for their victims. This would indicate their appreciation of all the harms done and an effort, however too little and too late, to make a partial amends.
Don’t hold your breath or expect common decency from the Sackler’s. The courts will be the only possible way to claw back some of this bad money they have earned and turn it to good (as in the Big Tobacco settlement). Twenty-four states and at least 400 local governments are suing Purdue for knowingly misleading doctors and the public about the safety of prescription opioids. Let’s hope they win – and win big.
Ten years ago, Purdue copped a plea on similar charges and was fined over six hundred million dollars. This turned out to be no more than chump change – the cost of doing dirty business and not a strong enough disincentive to curtail the opioid epidemic.
Let’s hope this go round is different – that current fines are much larger and sufficient to fund a significant amount of free treatment for victims. If they had the capacity for guilt or shame, the Sackler’s would now be in payback mode, not using patent protection to extract even more loot from a lethal opioid epidemic they initiated and sustained.
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