Richard Sackler, a scion of the family that owned the drug manufacturer Perdue Pharma and eventually its CEO, was just its senior vice-president of sales in 1996, when he announced a revolutionary new opioid painkiller, OxyContin. Sackler predicted, “The launch of OxyContin tablets will be followed by a blizzard of prescriptions that will bury the competition.”
How right he was. OxyContin not only buried the pharmaceutical competition, it buried thousands of its customers who died after taking the drug, or, after they’d become opioid-addicted, died after switching to cheaper illegal street drugs like heroin or fentanyl.
Perdue Pharma saw OxyContin as the successor to their money-making pain-killer MS Contin, a time-released package of morphine that was about to lose its patent protection. OxyContin took the time-release technique and applied it to oxycodone…a 1916-model opioid that had long been marketed in combination with acetaminophen or aspirin as Percocet and Percodan.
Perdue based its pitch for Oxycontin on two dangerous lies: that its time release formula made it safe to dispense with far higher doses of oxycodone than either of the Percs, and that even at these radically increased dosages, Oxycontin was not addictive.
By the time Oxycontin ruled the legal opioid market, the numbers of addicted Americans overdosing on opioids was running out of control. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, nearly 400,000 people in the United States died of opioid overdoses between 1999 and 2017, including a record 47,600 in 2017.
OxyContin and the other legal opioids are believed to have been responsible for more than 17,000 of those deaths, but the street drug for which they helped create a market, fentanyl, killed many more.
America’s opioid epidemic has cost not just lives, but money. A CDC estimate put the national opioid bill for calendar year 2013 at $78.5 billion. But according to the White House Council of Economic Advisers, by 2015, the price tag had surged to more than $500 billion.
The state of Oklahoma estimates its outlays for treating opioid addiction problems will be $8.7 billion over the next 20 years, which puts into perspective the $270 million the state just got from Perdue Pharma and the Sackler family to settle a lawsuit holding the company responsible for the ruinous epidemic.
Lenny Bernstein is a medical and science reporter for the Washington Post. His continuing series of reports, done with investigative reporter Scott Higham, has revealed how political decisions have crippled the DEA’s efforts to control the flood of opioid drugs being sold across the United States. Lenny and Scott and their associate David Fallis won the 2016 Gorge Polk Award for Medical Reporting.