Who (or what) is to blame for the opioid epidemic?

Jacob Feuerstein, Opinions Co-Editor

Mortimer, Arthur and Raymond Sackler: you may be familiar with these names now, but they were practically unheard of 10 or 15 years ago, except for a few people in New York high society. Their story begins in the 1930s. At the time, the brothers, born of Jewish migrants, were working hard to pay their way through medical school. After graduating from their respective schools, they found jobs at Creedmoor Psychiatric Center in Queens, N.Y. Clearly, as the news of today indicates, this is not where their story ends.

According to the New Yorker, Arthur Sackler, the self-proclaimed patriarch of the Sackler family, was known in the medical field to be a kind of Renaissance man, his variety of interests including clinical psychology, pharmacology and advertising, the last of which he had gained experience with through his high school years and while working in college. The brothers honed these advertising skills over time, developing the tools their children would later need to make a modern fortune of nearly 13 billion dollars. Until the brothers had entered the pharmaceutical industry and medical fields, disinterestedness was the norm; medical journals were like most other scholarly publications, containing research and reports from various experiments around the country. However, where most physicians and researchers saw an opportunity to provide information that would improve health outcomes for patients, the Sacklers saw a chance to make money. By introducing eye-catching, full-page advertisements to medical journals and doctors offices across the country, the Sacklers — who at this point were working as advertising executives in New York City — made appeals directly to physicians to prescribe certain pharmaceuticals to treat their patients’ needs. While some of these ads were honest attempts to provide doctors with information about new drugs and ways in which they could help their patients, others were “blatantly deceptive,” according to a New Yorker article recently released on the Sacklers; several advertisements fabricated cards from nonexistent doctors who recommended their drugs. Other advertisements, while not displaying outright falsehoods, demonstrated a flagrant disregard for medical ethics — drugs such as Valium were explicitly advertised as being a near panacea.

The children of Arthur, Raymond, and Mortimer Sackler later became the owners and founders of the now-famous Purdue Pharma. Purdue is the company responsible for the creation and production of OxyContin, one of the drugs that has been determined to be a critical component of the opioid epidemic in the United States. Maybe fraudulence runs in the family.

Earlier this month, Purdue Pharma filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy in a settlement that would require the Sackler family to pay $3 billion to the government over the next seven years. The settlement essentially nullifies the thousands of remaining lawsuits against the company, many charging that the Sacklers’ advertising was manipulative and that they had lied to doctors about the addictive qualities of opioid painkillers. Given the family’s history, it would not be a far stretch to assume that the children of Mortimer, Arthur, and Raymond Sackler were raised to be equally as deceitful as their parents. This kind of hereditary piety is one of the most important factors that has been fueling the current crisis. However, I think far more responsibility for the epidemic should rest on the shoulders of runaway, under-regulated capitalism. With nearly no effective checks on medical advertising in the United States and the ability to cynically manipulate medical studies to reflect one’s interests, it would be hard to imagine pharmaceutical companies feeling any incentive not to deceptively persuade doctors to prescribe their drugs. The solutions here could not be more obvious. Regulations must be put in place to prevent companies like Purdue from continuing to spread false advertising and reparations must be made not only to those affected by the opioid epidemic this generation, but the generations to come as well.

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