How One Billionaire Family Fueled the Opioid Crisis

In the last several years, a major problem in America has been growing like a cancer — addiction to drugs known as opioids. These powerful painkilling medicines, known to many people in the form of Vicodin, Percocet and Oxycontin, among other name brands, contain the same active ingredient as heroin — the opium poppy, harvested in places like Myanmar and Afghanistan.

For those seeking a fix, heroin is known as one of the worst scourges of the street, with addicts stealing, begging and turning to prostitution to support their habits.

What has been less acknowledged is that these pharmaceutical painkilling medications are creating virtually the same types of addiction as heroin, with equally dangerous consequences. People who were initially prescribed these medications for pain were in some cases getting addicted and then making up excuses to give to doctors for why they needed more pills.

Up until recently, many doctors would simply write a prescription for these medicines if a patient said they were experiencing pain, with no verification of symptoms or questions being asked. In other cases, desperate patients would go from doctor to doctor until they found one who would write the needed prescription. Other outlets like online pharmacies and generic alternatives to name brand medications provided additional sources for the pills.

In the most extreme cases, people could access the “Dark Web” to place orders for these drugs and have them shipped anonymously in unmarked packages from other countries.

In the end, however, many addicts who could no longer afford the high prices of the prescription pills often turned to heroin to get their fixes. Although in theory, heroin is more dangerous than prescription pills because its purity varies widely (many deaths are caused by impure or too-high dosages), the effects of the two types of drugs are the same.

While the number of opioid addicts in the country has been skyrocketing over the last decade, some people and companies have been profiting from this affliction, even in the face of mounting deaths. Certain doctors who were found to have written prescriptions for literally millions of pills have gone to jail. But the pharmaceutical companies that produced and continue to manufacture the painkiller pills have been far less punished.

One family that has profited greatly from the demand for opioid drugs is the Sacklers of New York. In 1952, three doctors in this family, Raymond, Mortimer and Arthur Sackler, bought a struggling drug manufacturer called Purdue, which up until that time had made laxatives and earwax removers, among other innocuous products.

But in the late 1980s, the Sacklers decided that Purdue would get into the pain medication business. They had company scientists take a generic painkiller called oxycodone and add a time-release mechanism, so the drug’s effects could be spread over the course of an entire day. They called the resulting product Oxycontin, and it was approved by the FDA in 1995.

By 2003, sales of Oxycontin had shot up to $1.6 billion per year, making it one of the most-prescribed painkillers on the market. By 2012, doctors were writing more than 282 million prescriptions per year for opioid painkillers, including Oxycontin, Vicodin and Percocet.

The bad press about opioids since then has seen prescriptions fall by 12 percent, but health professionals and government sources readily acknowledge that opioid medications are still a massive problem for the United States.

Since its approval by the FDA, Oxycontin has generated 35 billion dollars for Purdue. According to The New Yorker:

Purdue launched OxyContin with a marketing campaign that attempted to counter [fears about addiction] and change the prescribing habits of doctors. The company funded research and paid doctors to make the case that concerns about opioid addiction were overblown and that OxyContin could safely treat an ever-wider range of maladies. Sales representatives marketed OxyContin as a product “to start with and to stay with.” Millions of patients found the drug to be a vital salve for excruciating pain. But many others grew so hooked on it that, between doses, they experienced debilitating withdrawal.

The Sackler family now has assets of $13 billion, making them the country’s 19th wealthiest family. Forbes magazine states that “the Sacklers continue to reap hundreds of millions of dollars in profits from the businesses in 2016 — some $700 million last year, by Forbes’ calculations — from an estimated $3 billion in Purdue Pharma revenues, plus at least $1.5 billion in sales from their foreign companies.”

With such a largess, the Sacklers have been quick to turn to philanthropy to placate some of their more prominent critics. They’ve endowed museums and universities around the country with art collections worth millions. There’s a Sackler wing of the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City and a Sackler Gallery at the Smithsonian Museum in Washington. Harvard University has its own Sackler Museum, and more than a dozen other colleges around the country have art given by the Sacklers.

But less celebrated than all this art is the fact that since 2009, heroin overdose deaths in the U.S. have sextupled to 1,200 deaths every month while prescription opioid deaths have experienced nearly the same rise since 2000.

Deaths from fentanyl, a synthetic opioid, have quintupled since 2013, and the nation has finally acknowledged that it’s in the throes of a drug epidemic. Particularly hard hit have been rural areas, where anti-addiction resources are scarcer or not even present.

President Trump has declared the opioid crisis a national health emergency. “As Americans, we cannot allow this to continue,” he vowed.

Melania Trump has made fighting the crisis a top priority. “This can happen to any of us,” she stated. The president in the past has discussed his deceased brother Fred, who was an alcoholic. Fred told Trump not to drink at a young age, and Trump since then has followed his advice.

Trump has promised a big advertising campaign to counter opioids’ lure to youth and the unemployed. His emergency declaration will allow treatment to be more accessible and ensure fewer delays in states needing to ramp up their staff in branches of the Department of Health and Human Services to deal with the issue. It also will let the Department of Labor issue grants to dislocated workers who have been adversely affected. In addition, HIV/AIDS funding will be prioritized for people who need substance abuse treatment.

Trump has also committed to discussing the problem of fentanyl flowing from China when he visits the People’s Republic to meet with Chinese President Xi Jinping this month. In China, fentanyl is not a problem for the country’s citizens, but nonetheless, the People’s Republic has declared 23 components of the drug controlled substances due to international pressure.

Several states have sued opioid manufacturers including Purdue, and President Trump is said to be mulling over federal lawsuits. “There’s nothing desirable about drugs,” said the president, in a message aimed at the country’s youth. “They’re bad.”