The Opioid Crisis: Media Complicity and Political Inaction

It is undeniable that President Donald J. Trump has been a steadfast advocate for many White working-class Americans.  His ability to connect with them is often cited in the analysis of his victory in traditionally Democratic stronghold states such as Michigan, Wisconsin, and of course the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania which put him over the top in terms of electoral votes on election night.  He was able to advocate for their specific interests such as the revival of the coal mining industry, the revival of manufacturing, the renegotiation of trade deals and international agreements in order to provide economic opportunity to White American blue-collar workers, and a crackdown on illegal aliens who are in competition with White American workers.

While Trump was great on many issues pertaining to the American working-class during the campaign, he never really put emphasis on the opioid crisis which has been particularly damaging to the White working class.  An academic study by Anne Case and her husband, Nobel Prize-wining Angus Deaton of Princeton titled Rising Morbidity and Mortality in Midlife among White non-Hispanic Americans in the 21st Century examines how the average mid-life mortality rates of Americans have decreased over time for every demographic group except for Whites.  According to the study, “Midlife increases in suicides and drug poisonings have been previously noted. However, that these upward trends were persistent and large enough to drive up all-cause midlife mortality has, to our knowledge, been overlooked.”  While the opioid crisis certainly effects people of all backgrounds across all fifty states, it has had a particularly strong effect on White people in America.  The study goes on to say, “The increase in midlife morbidity and mortality among US white non-Hispanics is only partly understood. The increased availability of opioid prescriptions for pain that began in the late 1990s has been widely noted, as has the associated mortality.”  The study clearly asserts that the opioid crisis has influenced the increasing mortality rates among Whites.  A staggering finding:

If the white mortality rate for ages 45−54 had held at their 1998 value, 96,000 deaths would have been avoided from 1999–2013, 7,000 in 2013 alone. If it had continued to decline at its previous (1979‒1998) rate, half a million deaths would have been avoided in the period 1999‒2013, comparable to lives lost in the US AIDS epidemic through mid-2015. Concurrent declines in self-reported health, mental health, and ability to work, increased reports of pain, and deteriorating measures of liver function all point to increasing midlife distress.

While there are many factors at work here, the ongoing opioid crisis cannot be overlooked.

The Sackler family is at the center of the epidemic. According to the Washington Post, “The source of the Sacklers’ fortune is their privately held firm, Purdue Pharma, maker of OxyContin, a potentially addictive painkiller that has earned an estimated $35 billion in revenue since it came on the market in 1995 — an event many consider the trigger of the opioid epidemic.”  According to Forbes,

[Purdue] sold several moderately successful products, like earwax remover and laxatives, but remained under the radar until the mid-1990s when it began selling what amounted to morphine in a pill. OxyContin, a long-lasting, narcotic pain reliever, launched in 1995 and by 2003 Purdue was selling $1.6 billion of the product annually. It became abused by addicts who would crush the pills for a quick, intense high, sparking controversy and legal action against Purdue. The company paid more than $600 million in 2007 to settle charges with federal prosecutors that it had misbranded OxyContin as safer and less addictive than it was. In December 2015 it settled a similar lawsuit with the state of Kentucky. Some had said the case might yield more than $1 billion in damages; the company agreed to pay $24 million and admitted no wrongdoing. Today, Purdue, still 100% owned by the Sackler family, generates some $3 billion in sales in the U.S. Separate Sackler-owned companies sell drugs in Europe, Canada, Asia and Latin America. An estimated 20 family members share the fortune.

One has to wonder how the Sacklers were able to get away with what ultimately amounts to intentionally poisoning many thousands of Americans with highly addictive pain killers.  Certainly the media largely looked the other way and the New York Times (which is published by the New York Times Company which has been traditionally chaired by members of the Sulzberger family) even lauded Raymond Sackler as a psychopharmacology pioneer and philanthropist even after the legal settlements mentioned above.  The article mentioned the legal issues surrounding OxyContin mostly in passing.  A New Yorker article (where David Remnick serves as editor) entitled, “Who is Responsible for the Pain-Pill Epidemic?” authored by Celine Gounder also makes no mention of the Sackler family.  The New Yorker is published by Condé Nast Inc. where Robert A. Sauerberg serves as the CEO and president.  While there was no mention of the Sackler family, the article did go into some of the tactics used by big pharmaceutical firms to circumvent regulations.  The article went on to say,

In 2007, Purdue Pharma and three of its top executives pleaded guilty to criminal charges that they had misled the F.D.A., clinicians, and patients about the risks of OxyContin addiction and abuse by aggressively marketing the drug to providers and patients as a safe alternative to short-acting narcotics. (Doctors had been taught that because OxyContin was time-released, it wouldn’t cause a high that would lead to addiction.)

These criminal charges against the company were reduced to misdemeanors for the three executives — they paid a $34,000,000 fine and did community service. Small change compared to the profits they made by being responsible for the deaths of ~250,000 mainly White people and counting.

The Sackler-owned Purdue Pharma created a climate where doctors and pharmacies were complicit with their quest to profit from the pain of the working-class even if that meant serious addiction.  The Sacklers were clearly very successful in building a powerful ethnic network which largely shielded them from major public scrutiny, including individual researchers, such as R. K. Portenoy, who provided the original study touting low addiction rates and who was lavishly supported by Purdue.

Despite many media platforms’ obvious efforts to obfuscate the Sacklers’ involvement in the opioid crisis there was one article from Esquire entitled “The Secretive Family Making Billions from the Opioid Crisis” authored by Christopher Glazek which appropriately examines the Sacklers’ involvement in the crisis, and how they were able to keep their involvement largely a secret.  The article starts off by outlining the Sacklers’ philanthropic contributions,

The Sackler Courtyard is the latest addition to an impressive portfolio. There’s the Sackler Wing at New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art, which houses the majestic Temple of Dendur, a sandstone shrine from ancient Egypt; additional Sackler wings at the Louvre and the Royal Academy; stand-alone Sackler museums at Harvard and Peking Universities; and named Sackler galleries at the Smithsonian, the Serpentine, and Oxford’s Ashmolean. The Guggenheim in New York has a Sackler Center, and the American Museum of Natural History has a Sackler Educational Lab. Members of the family, legendary in museum circles for their pursuit of naming rights, have also underwritten projects of a more modest caliber—a Sackler Staircase at Berlin’s Jewish Museum; a Sackler Escalator at the Tate Modern; a Sackler Crossing in Kew Gardens. A popular species of pink rose is named after a Sackler. So is an asteroid. The Sackler name is no less prominent among the emerald quads of higher education, where it’s possible to receive degrees from Sackler schools, participate in Sackler colloquiums, take courses from professors with endowed Sackler chairs, and attend annual Sackler lectures on topics such as theoretical astrophysics and human rights. The Sackler Institute for Nutrition Science supports research on obesity and micronutrient deficiencies. Meanwhile, the Sackler institutes at Cornell, Columbia, McGill, Edinburgh, Glasgow, Sussex, and King’s College London tackle psychobiology, with an emphasis on early childhood development.

The Sacklers’ philanthropy differs from that of civic populists like Andrew Carnegie, who built hundreds of libraries in small towns, and Bill Gates, whose foundation ministers to global masses. Instead, the family has donated its fortune to blue-chip brands, braiding the family name into the patronage network of the world’s most prestigious, well-endowed institutions. The Sackler name is everywhere, evoking automatic reverence; the Sacklers themselves, however, are rarely seen.

One can see how the Sacklers are intrinsically intertwined with the political, financial, and medical elites of the world.  They used their wealth to form close relationships with powerful elites and created a charitable aura surrounding themselves.  While cultivating an image of philanthropy, the Sacklers simultaneously obscured their involvement with the source of their wealth which is Purdue Pharma and OxyContin.  The article went on to say,

Even so, hardly anyone associates the Sackler name with their company’s lone blockbuster drug. “The Fords, Hewletts, Packards, Johnsons—all those families put their name on their product because they were proud,” said Keith Humphreys, a professor of psychiatry at Stanford University School of Medicine who has written extensively about the opioid crisis. “The Sacklers have hidden their connection to their product. They don’t call it ‘Sackler Pharma.’ They don’t call their pills ‘Sackler pills.’ And when they’re questioned, they say, ‘Well, it’s a privately held firm, we’re a family, we like to keep our privacy, you understand.’”

The Sackler family really has been incredibly successful in creating a totally artificial positive public appearance while also knowingly addicting many Americans to their dangerous drugs in order to make a profit.

Political actors also helped to shield the Sacklers from backlash.  According to Stat News, “In 2001, as reports of OxyContin abuse spread across the country, Richard Blumenthal, then the Connecticut attorney general and now a US senator, wrote directly to Sackler urging him to ‘completely overhaul and reform’ Purdue’s marketing of OxyContin” —  essentially a case of an attorney general and future U.S. senator giving advice on how to avoid legal problems.  Blumenthal, like the Sacklers, is Jewish. It is evident that the Sacklers have used a strong network of well-positioned co-ethnics to maintain their standing even as their less than reputable dealings were coming under the public’s spotlight.  The Stat article went on to say, “The Sackler family, in general, has avoided public discussion of OxyContin or the drug’s role in helping hook Americans on opioids. The Purdue website makes little mention of Richard Sackler or other family members.”

The Sacklers know exactly what they are doing, and they have been largely successful in duping the American public as to their leading role in the poisoning of the White working-class.

Fortunately, as the opioid crisis deepens, and more information is uncovered, more is being done to curb the ability of big pharmaceutical firms to inundate American communities with addictive drugs.  Several state attorneys general are investigating suing drug manufacturers, including Pennsylvania Attorney General, Josh Shapiro.  Furthermore, as the crisis deepens many journalists are also turning against big pharma.  A Washington Post article authored by Scott Higham and Lenny Bernstein entitled “The Drug Industry’s Triumph Over The DEA” did much to shine light on big pharma’s role in the opioid crisis, but it is worth noting the article does not mention Purdue or the Sackler family.  While the 60 Minutes segment on the opioid crisis did mention Purdue, there was no mention of the Sackler Family. One can see how the Sacklers’ influence may extend even to their supposed critics.

And the problem is that even though drugs like OxyContin have come under stringent control, the damage is done. Addicts have simply turned to illegal drugs like heroin, and the death rate from opioid poisoning is actually increasing.

The real question is: why has President Trump, who has always been a steadfast advocate of the American White working-class, neglected one of the biggest problems facing them today?  I really don’t know.  Given everything known about the President one would think that he would be the archetype of someone to bring an end to the opioid crisis.  He has a personal hatred of drugs stretching back to his older brother, Fred Trump, who died from alcoholism-related causes. That coupled with his advocacy for the White working-class and his reluctance to accept big corporate campaign donations would lead one to believe that he would make a major effort to deal with the opioid crisis which continues to plague the very people who support him the most.

Very recently President Trump did officially declare the opioid crisis a health emergency, but one must wonder if after nine months as President, Donald Trump has done too little too late.  According to the New York Times,

[President Trump’s] directive does not on its own release any additional funds to deal with a drug crisis that claimed more than 59,000 lives in 2016, and the president did not request any, although his aides said he would soon do so. And he made little mention of the need for the rapid and costly expansion of medical treatment that public health specialists, including some in his own administration, argue is crucial to addressing the epidemic.

It appears President Trump does not intend to take aim at Purdue Pharma or the Sackler family.  His main goal seems to be treatment, and putting a stop to the crisis further engulfing America into the quagmire of addiction.  While these are noble goals, he really should go after those who started this crisis and bring them to justice.

The first thing President Trump should do, even before tax and health care reform, is to start a more serious campaign against the opioid crisis which is killing the people who love him the most.  America cannot be made great again until our people are saved from the scourge that is the opioid crisis.  It is incumbent upon President Trump to do more.  Stopping the opioid crisis would be the perfect first step towards the ultimate goal which is to Make America Great Again.

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