The Billionaire Family Profiting from the Disastrous Opioid Epidemic

Here is another sickening example of profits being earned through cruel corporate activities. The expose of this family is notable in how it digs deeper than most reports to find the original problem.

The descendants of Mortimer and Raymond Sackler, a pair of psychiatrist brothers from Brooklyn, are members of a billionaire clan with homes scattered across Connecticut, London, Utah, Gstaad, the Hamptons, and, especially, New York City. It was not until 2015 that they were noticed by Forbes, which added them to the list of America’s richest families. The magazine pegged their wealth, shared among twenty heirs, at a conservative $14 billion. (Descendants of Arthur Sackler, Mortimer and Raymond’s older brother, split off decades ago and are mere multi-millionaires.) To a remarkable degree, those who share in the billions appear to have abided by an oath of omertà: Never comment publicly on the source of the family’s wealth.

That may be because the greatest part of that $14 billion fortune tallied by Forbes came from OxyContin, the narcotic painkiller regarded by many public-health experts as among the most dangerous products ever sold on a mass scale. Since 1996, when the drug was brought to market by Purdue Pharma, the American branch of the Sacklers’ pharmaceutical empire, more than two hundred thousand people in the United States have died from overdoses of OxyContin and other prescription painkillers. Thousands more have died after starting on a prescription opioid and then switching to a drug with a cheaper street price, such as heroin. Not all of these deaths are related to OxyContin—dozens of other painkillers, including generics, have flooded the market in the past thirty years. Nevertheless, Purdue Pharma was the first to achieve a dominant share of the market for long-acting opioids, accounting for more than half of prescriptions by 2001.

According to the Centers for Disease Control, fifty-three thousand Americans died from opioid overdoses in 2016, more than the thirty-six thousand who died in car crashes in 2015 or the thirty-five thousand who died from gun violence that year. This past July, Donald Trump’s Commission on Combating Drug Addiction and the Opioid Crisis, led by New Jersey governor Chris Christie, declared that opioids were killing roughly 142 Americans each day, a tally vividly described as “September 11th every three weeks.” The epidemic has also exacted a crushing financial toll: According to a study published by the American Public Health Association, using data from 2013—before the epidemic entered its current, more virulent phase—the total economic burden from opioid use stood at about $80 billion, adding together health costs, criminal-justice costs, and GDP loss from drug-dependent Americans leaving the workforce. Tobacco remains, by a significant multiple, the country’s most lethal product, responsible for some 480,000 deaths per year. But although billions have been made from tobacco, cars, and firearms, it’s not clear that any of those enterprises has generated a family fortune from a single product that approaches the Sacklers’ haul from OxyContin.

Democracy Now has coverage of these origins of OxyContin too.

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A Week’s Local Reporting in the Opioid Crisis

A week’s focus of reporting on the opioid epidemic from Cincinatti, Ohio.

The Enquirer sent more than 60 reporters, photographers and videographers into their communities to chronicle an ordinary week in this extraordinary time.

It’s a little after sunrise on the first day of another week, and Cincinnati is waking up again with a heroin problem. So is Covington. And Middletown. And Norwood. And Hamilton. And West Chester Township. And countless other cities and towns across Ohio and Kentucky.

This particular week, July 10 through 16, will turn out to be unexceptional by the dreary standards of what has become the region’s greatest health crisis.

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This is normal now, a week like any other. But a terrible week is no less terrible because it is typical. When heroin and synthetic opiates kill one American every 16 minutes, there is little comfort in the routine.

[…]

Ali walks along McMicken Avenue in Over-the-Rhine, looking for someone willing to pay her for sex.

It’s what she does to get money to buy fentanyl, and to keep a roof over her head. She’s 25 and addicted to the synthetic opiate. She used to take heroin, but now she prefers the more powerful and more dangerous synthetic.

She’s having trouble finding someone to pick her up on this steamy afternoon.

Ali already has changed her dress today. She’s wearing a metallic-studded, purple mini dress. She knows that sometimes her customers want someone pretty. Other times, it doesn’t seem to matter.

Tall and fine-boned, Ali could be a model. But she is emaciated. She has bruises on her neck from shooting up.

She runs a hand through her long, thick hair, grasps it and lifts it from her shoulders before letting it fall back down. Then she does it again. She’s getting anxious. Withdrawal symptoms are starting to set in and Ali thinks she might vomit on the sidewalk if she doesn’t get a fix.

Ali darts across the street, vanishes for a few minutes and returns with her drug in hand. She hides behind a couple of trash cans and uses it.

About 15 minutes later, she’s back, feeling better, walking the street in the hot summer sun.

[…]

Kim Hill searches through the boxes filled with her son’s belongings, unsure what she’s looking for. There’s a box for Tommy’s clothes, sneakers and hats. There’s a box for his cologne.

She can smell him on the clothes he’ll never wear again, and on the green comforter from the bed he’ll never return home to sleep in.

Kim decides to take the comforter home with her.

She will hold it close tonight, in her own bed, while she tries again to sleep. And she will think, “This is what is left of my child.”

[…]

It’s almost midnight on the last day of another week, and the heroin epidemic has done its damage.

18: Deaths known or suspected to be the result of overdoses.

180: Overdoses reported to hospitals in the region. This figure underestimates the actual number of overdoses because it only includes those requiring hospital treatment.

210: Inmates in the Hamilton County Justice Center, the region’s largest jail, who admitted to using heroin or other opioids. Jail officials have estimated that as many as half of all inmates, about 870 this week, have an opioid problem.

$95,550: Cost to taxpayers to house those 210 inmates for one week. If the inmate total is closer to the estimated 870, the cost would be $395,850.

15: Babies born with health problems because their mothers used heroin or other opioids.

34: Investigations opened in southwest Ohio into the well-being of a child whose parent or guardian was known or suspected of using heroin or other opioids.

102 hours, 42 minutes: Time it took first responders to tend to overdose patients. This figure is considered low by dispatch supervisors because many overdose runs are not initially called in as such.