Members of the Sackler family, the owners of Purdue Pharma, which produced the profitable opioid linked more than any other to the drug crisis in Appalachia and beyond, appeared Thursday before Congress to almost apologize.
David Sackler expressed “deep sadness” regarding the opioid crisis — linked to more than 430,000 overdose deaths over the past decade — but went on to say his company’s drug, OxyContin, was made to help Americans and continues to do so. His cousin, Kathe Sackler, said she sympathizes with those who have lost loved ones to overdoses, but wouldn’t have done anything different in regard to OxyContin, because she had no way of knowing then what she does now.
It was hardly a conciliatory moment. Not that the company heads who turned a deaf ear and blind eye to the crisis they helped create would be expected to say or do anything else.
In fact, the Sacklers did know then what they know now, at least in part. Former company president Richard Sackler, who did not testify, told those at a launch party in the 1990s to get ready to see a “blizzard” of prescriptions for the drug.
Company emails presented in various lawsuits showed the Sacklers urged a marketing campaign to downplay the drug’s potency, because, even though it was as powerful as the hospital anesthetic morphine, the company wanted doctors to prescribe it for less-serious injuries and ailments. They also wanted physicians to prescribe the drug for longer than necessary. The Sacklers were being dishonest, and had to know patients would get addicted to their synthetic opioid.
Even in the early 2000s, when pill mills had cropped up across the country — especially in states like West Virginia and Kentucky — the Sacklers adopted a corporate policy of attacking addicts, instead of taking responsibility for their dangerous product. In an email from that time, Richard Sackler wrote that Purdue Pharma needed to “hammer on the abusers in every way possible,” saying they, not out-of-control pharmaceutical companies, were “the culprits and the problem.”
The Sacklers made billions off the misery of others, helping to create a crisis that ushered in the common use of fentanyl and heroin after prescription pills became too expensive or too hard to obtain from street-level drug dealers, and the pill mills were shut down.
The use of intravenous drugs also has led to an explosion of hepatitis and HIV cases in West Virginia over the past few years.
Purdue Pharma is hardly the only culprit in this epidemic, but company leaders knew what they were doing, and the company was a founding father of this ongoing tragedy. The Sacklers will not weep for the sons and daughters, mothers and fathers who have lost their lives or had them ruined by the drug crisis. The Sacklers are only sorry they were exposed.
Perhaps the only thing they’d really have done differently, given the chance, is be more subtle.