But as a historian of addictive pharmaceuticals, I see a danger in associating the opioid crisis too closely with the Sackler family.
Despite the many individuals and companies involved, the Sacklers became the public face of the opioid crisis. In part this acknowledged their status as pioneers: They were the first to hypermarket strong opioids, and they led the pack in blaming the resulting catastrophe on consumers who became addicted to those prescription painkillers.
Pop culture villainy
The Sacklers used their profits to protect the family’s reputation through lavish charitable donations to museums like the Guggenheim and the Louvre, and several universities – including Tufts and Yale.
Their philanthropy produced an aura of respectability but also made them highly visible. Eventually journalists connected the dots, leading to a cottage industry of books and media coverage of the opioid crisis casting the Sacklers as the bad guys responsible for historic levels of addiction and overdose.
The Sacklers-as-comic-book-villains story is on full display in actor Michael Stuhlbarg’s Emmy-nominated performance as a remarkably creepy Richard Sackler in the Hulu series “Dopesick,” based on Beth Macy’s book by the same name.
‘White market drugs’
Purdue did not invent the tactics it used to sell OxyContin. Pharmaceutical companies discover and sell genuinely miraculous products, but they also routinely wield troubling influence over every step of the production and circulation of knowledge about drugs, which can make it difficult to understand the true value of a medicine. They oversee the research that demonstrates drug effectiveness. They write or help write the publications based on the research.
Drugmakers script or influence the professional guidelines that encourage prescribing. They underwrite professional organizations and pay medical experts to spread the word. They fund and channel patient advocacy organizations into supporting the medicines they manufacture.
And then they lobby for legislation, regulations and anything else that can gin up more demand for their drugs.
Until the Food and Drug Administration approved OxyContin in 1995, these marketing techniques were forbidden for opioids, which authorities considered to be too dangerous for them.
As I explain in my book, “White Market Drugs,” federal regulators, supported by cautious medical authorities, appointed leading pharmacologists to test the addictiveness of new opioid products. They scrutinized advertisements to make sure the risks were fully and accurately conveyed.
Pharmaceutical companies tried to outfox regulators with a parade of now-forgotten “miracle opioids” long before OxyContin. Indeed, one of these would-be wonder drugs was none other than oxycodone, OxyContin’s main ingredient.
Purdue’s real innovation with OxyContin was commercial, not scientific. The company was the first to market a powerful opioid using the most aggressive strategies other drug companies regularly used to get pharmaceutical innovations into bodies with great speed and efficiency – while maximizing profits.
Once Purdue showed it could be done, competitors quickly followed suit. The industry replaced U.S. medicine’s century-old habits of opioid precautions with a reckless boosterism.
Complicity of many industries
Purdue, that is, didn’t act alone.
Other drugmakers such as Endo and Janssen imitated and even surpassed Purdue’s example once the taboo had been broken.
Generic manufacturers such as Allergan and Teva then profited by expanding and prolonging the boom, as did wholesale drug distributors and retail chain pharmacies. Even the prestigious McKinsey consulting firm got into the game, advising others how to maximize sales.
The complicity of so many industries makes opioid litigation complex and hard to follow. Cities, states and other plaintiffs didn’t just sue Purdue. They turned to the legal system to make sure that all the other companies pay to repair the harms they caused in building the historic opioid boom that has contributed to more than 500,000 overdose deaths since 1996.
To date the largest national opioid settlement is with the three main opioid distributors and Johnson & Johnson, manufacturer of the Duragesic and Nucynta opioids. It totals $26 billion, significantly more than what Purdue and the Sacklers are paying.
But financial settlements cannot solve every problem that made this crisis possible. Purdue and its competitors were able to put profits over consumer safety for so long, in part, because their marketing strategies closely approximated how other medicines are sold in the U.S.
The opioid crisis, in other words, revealed in an exaggerated fashion problems prevalent in the pharmaceutical industry more generally. Until those broader problems are resolved, the unhappy history of addictive prescription drugs will keep repeating itself.
David Herzberg is an associate professor of history, University at Buffalo. He is a U.S. historian of drugs and addictive medicines, with a particular interest in the governance of pharmaceutical sedatives, stimulants, and narcotics in the 20th century’s consumer culture. This piece originally appeared in The Conversation, a nonprofit news source dedicated to unlocking ideas from academia for the public.