The Billionaires Profiting From OxyContin
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The Billionaires Profiting From OxyContin


Since it was released as a supposedly nonaddictive painkiller in 1995, OxyContin has wreaked havoc on America’s health, with uncountable deaths attributed to Oxy overdoses in the past 20 years. But don’t tell that to the founding family of the drug’s maker, Purdue Pharma, who have now joined the Forbes annual list of America’s wealthiest families.

A Family of Shrinks

The Sackler family of Connecticut is worth $14 billion, more than the Rockefellers, and Purdue Pharma has generated more than $35 billion in sales since it released the supposedly nonaddictive version of the painkiller oxycodone in 1995.

The three brothers who founded the company in 1952—Arthur, Mortimer and Raymond Sackler—were all psychiatrists. In 1987, Mortimer and Raymond started playing around with painkillers, eventually taking generic oxycodone—invented in World War I-era Germany—and installing a timed-release mechanism.

Oxycodone was reserved for agonizing conditions like cancer. But since Oxy was (very aggressively) marketed as nonaddictive, primary care docs with no specialized training in pain management started prescribing it for all manner of ills. By 2002, the drug had brought in $1.5 billion in sales for the Sacklers.

False Advertising

Of course, addicts have been able to crush up OxyContin to snort it for a fast high, making it about as addiction-proof as the Titanic was sink-proof. But even without snorting it or shooting it, the drug is still very addictive. So with overdose deaths and addiction linked to OxyContin, the Sacklers caught the attention of regulators.

In 2007, Purdue Pharma paid $600 million in fines after pleading guilty to federal charges of misbranding their product as nonaddictive. Three Purdue Pharma execs also pleaded guilty, paying out a total of $34.5 million in fines.

That’s not exactly pocket change.

But the Sacklers weren’t the unfortunate victims of pharmacology experimentation gone south—they knowingly marketed the drug as less addictive than it really was. According to federal officials, company sales reps created fraudulent scientific charts that “proved” the drug posed little threat of addiction to users.

Yeah, those charts? Complete bullshit.

After paying its fines, Purdue went back to the drawing board to create yet another version of the drug that’s supposed to be even more addiction-proof. This time, the pills contain some naxolone, a drug used to bring people back to life after they’ve overdosed on opiates. In the new Oxy, naxolone will block the euphoric effect of the opiate, hopefully discouraging addiction. But the naxolone is only released if the pills are crushed. Those who swallow the pills—and according to the FDA, the majority of those who get addicted do take them orally—won’t get any benefit from the naxolone.

Addiction experts (and anyone with half a brain) are pretty skeptical that this new and more addiction-proof Oxy will really curb abuse of the drug.

Blood on Their Hands?

According to the National Institute on Drug Abuse, four out of five drug addicts start off on painkillers, and many who start on Oxy wind up with a needle in their arm shooting heroin. It’s only fair that the Sacklers be held responsible for advertising the drug as nonaddictive and covering up the deleterious effects when marketing to physicians. But aside from fines they’ve paid, they’ve continued to happily add to their fortune.

According to Forbes, these guys are now the 16th-wealthiest family in America. They’re only $200 million behind the Hunts of Texas (No. 15) and $500 million shy of the Du Ponts (No. 14). The rate we keep popping their painkiller, who knows where they’ll end up.

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About Author

Tracy Chabala is a freelance writer for many publications including the LA Times, LA Weekly, Smashd, VICE and Salon. She writes mostly about food, technology and culture, in addition to addiction and mental health. She holds a Master's in Professional Writing from USC and is finishing up her novel.