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Cities & States Sue Big Pharma, Targeting the Firms Who Profited from Peddling Addictive Opioids

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New York Mayor Bill de Blasio announced earlier this year that the city would sue manufacturers and distributors of prescription opioids to account for their part in the city’s ongoing deadly opioid epidemic. Firms named in the suit include Purdue Pharma, Johnson & Johnson and McKesson Corporation. The Guardian reports that more than 60 cities are suing Big Pharma over opioids. An explosive New York Times report has revealed that manufacturers of the drug OxyContin knew it was highly addictive as early as 1996, the first year after the drug hit the market. The Times published a confidential Justice Department report this week showing that Purdue Pharma executives were told OxyContin was being crushed and snorted for its powerful narcotic, but still promoted it as less addictive than other opioid painkillers. Purdue executives have testified before Congress that they were unaware of the drug’s growing abuse until years after it was on the market. Today, drug overdoses are the leading cause of death for Americans under age 50. We speak with Barry Meier, author of “Pain Killer: An Empire of Deceit and the Origin of America’s Opioid Epidemic.”

This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: This is Democracy Now! I’m Amy Goodman. Our guest is Barry Meier, author of Pain Killer: An Empire of Deceit and the Origin of America’s Opioid Epidemic. Tell us the story of Dr. Art Van Zee.

BARRY MEIER: You know, Art Van Zee is kind of the hero of my book. He’s a man I met him when I was reporting for the Times back in the early 2000s. He’s a small-town doctor. He lives in a town called Pennington Gap in very western Virginia, near the Kentucky border. And I met him. He was a—he’s a gracious, lovely person. He reminded me of kind of a Doctors Without Borders, but here in the U.S., you know, working in Appalachia, in an area that desperately needed medical care.

He realized that his town was being overrun by OxyContin abuse. He saw kids being addicted to it, went to the hospital on emergency visits. And he decided, eventually, that he had to do something. He couldn’t stand quiet and let this unfold. And he tried to lead a small-town campaign to get the FDA to pull this drug off the market, or at least to crack down on this drug. And Pain Killer kind of follows his saga and the saga of other people in the town, a wonderful nun there by the name of Sister Beth, who sort of try try to take on this huge, powerful drug company and hold it to account.

AMY GOODMAN: And so, what happened to Dr. Art Van Zee?

BARRY MEIER: You know, Art Van Zee, like Laura Nagel, eventually got shouted down, got ignored. I mean, there was this rather pivotal Senate hearing, where he comes and he pleads with these senators to do something about this drug. And Chris Dodd, the Democratic senator from Connecticut at the time, starts raking him over the coals and sounds like he’s, you know, badgering him with talking points that had been given to him by Purdue Pharma. And lo and behold, when I started looking at campaign finance records and other documents, it turned out that Chris Dodd had met with Purdue Pharma prior to this hearing, and Purdue—and Chris Dodd had gotten a $10,000 contribution from Purdue Pharma shortly afterward. So, Purdue Pharma, you know, was spreading money around and going after its critics and co-opting them throughout this entire period. I mean, the U.S. attorney in Maine, who first sounded a public alarm about this—

AMY GOODMAN: First one in the country.

BARRY MEIER: In the country, in 2001. He went immediately onto the payroll of Purdue Pharma and became one of its biggest defenders. In fact, I found documents that suggested that he was discussing a job with them even before he left public office. He swore up and down that that wasn’t the case. But, in fact, there are emails, Purdue Pharma’s own emails, suggesting that he had reached out to them to discuss job opportunities.

AMY GOODMAN: Explain the nature of the settlement in 2007. Can the company—can individuals in the company be held criminally responsible today, what, 200,000 deaths later, in the last 20 years, though they would argue, “That’s not all us”?

BARRY MEIER: Right. So, the settlement was twofold. The company, Purdue Pharma, as a company, pled guilty to a felony charge called misbranding, which was essentially misrepresenting the drug, and paid $600 million in fines. The three executives, top executives, of the company pled guilty to a misdemeanor version of that charge. It was a sort of weird charge, because it only held him liable in their roles as corporate executives. It did not accuse them personally of any wrongdoing. They paid around—about $34 million in fines. But what we came to discover, and what was in the Times in the other day and in the expanded version of the book, is that the prosecutors on the case wanted to charge them also with very serious felonies, that could have put them in jail, had that case gone forward.

AMY GOODMAN: And talking about holding people responsible, you write about how those that do drugs together, a husband, could be found guilty of murdering his wife, etc. Talk about that.

BARRY MEIER: Well, you know, we have a different standard of justice in this country. One standard is for the person who gets caught with, you know, some drugs in their pocket. Another standard is for the person who’s caught selling drugs. And another standard is for the executives of corporations that allow these drugs to get into the wrong hands of people, or knowingly are aware that these drugs are being abused, and don’t say anything. And, you know, there seems to be very little punishment that those kinds of individuals face.

AMY GOODMAN: But what do people face on the ground, who are doing drugs?

BARRY MEIER: They face their—they face spending the rest of their life in prison.


BARRY MEIER: You know, they can be sent away for 10 years, for 20 years. They can have their lives destroyed, whereas the corporate executives don’t see their bonuses going down. They don’t see their lives being ruined. They just go on with their lives.

AMY GOODMAN: Earlier this year, New York Mayor Bill de Blasio announced that New York would sue manufacturers and distributors of prescription opioids to account for their part in the city’s ongoing deadly opioid epidemic. Firms named in the suit include Purdue Pharma, Johnson & Johnson and McKesson Corporation.

MAYOR BILL DE BLASIO: This is a man-made crisis if ever there was one, fueled by corporate greed, fueled by the actions of big pharmaceutical companies that hooked millions of Americans on opioids to begin with. And some of them still are addicted to prescription drugs, and others have migrated to heroin. But we know where it began for so many people. And, bluntly, it was so a very few people could profit, and, obviously, the horrible actions of criminals who sell drugs and profit in death, as well. That combination has led to where we are today. We need to remember that those origins at the root of this problem means it’s a problem that can be defeated. We can fight back against the big pharmaceutical companies. We can fight back against the criminals who peddle drugs. We can change in so many ways, including changing the entire culture around this issue, so we can help people.

AMY GOODMAN: So that’s New York Mayor Bill de Blasio. More than 60 U.S. cities in over a dozen states are now suing Big Pharma over opioids. What does this mean?

BARRY MEIER: Well, this could have happened a long time ago, Amy. You know, what’s startling to me is, as someone who’s watched this over almost two decades, is the issue of, you know, why did we wait this long to do this. We could have done this in 2003, in 2007, in 2010, in 2012. We have allowed this to morph into this horrible situation. It’s a good thing that it’s happening now. And I really do hope that these cities and states carry through and get to the truth, and not walk away with a simple settlement the way the Justice Department did in 2007. The only way that this problem is really going to be solved is if we really understand what happened, if the truth about what happened comes out. I mean, the fact that, you know, this confidential memo has now come out adds to the truth of what we know.

AMY GOODMAN: And again, say what is the essential point in this confidential memo.

BARRY MEIER: The essential point is that Purdue Pharma has claimed, from day one, and still claims today, that it first became aware of OxyContin’s growing abuse in 2000. This memo shows that prosecutors believe that they were aware of the drug’s abuse for years before that and concealed that information.

AMY GOODMAN: And what about the lawsuits of New York and 60 other cities and towns? What are they trying to accomplish with these lawsuits? What’s the premise of them?

BARRY MEIER: They’re trying to get money. They’re trying to get money to pay for some of the medical costs that they’ve had to absorb as a result of prescription drug overdoses and addictions. It’s very similar to the tobacco lawsuits, which I also covered for the Times. It’s essentially taxpayers have borne the brunt of the healthcare costs related to prescription painkillers. Purdue Pharma hasn’t paid for it. Johnson & Johnson hasn’t paid for it. These drug distributors haven’t paid for it. They’ve only profited from it. So now these states and towns are trying to recover some of the costs from the people who profited from this trade.

AMY GOODMAN: Barry Meier, what about the American Medical Association?

BARRY MEIER: It’s funny you should bring that up. The American Medical Association has been, over time, one of the big stumbling blocks to the solution of this problem. Back in 2001, I met a wonderful doctor, Dr. Nathaniel Katz. And he argued that doctors should be required to undergo some type of mandatory training as a condition for prescribing prescription drugs like OxyContin, like six hours of training, eight hours of training. You could do it on your home. You could do it through some sort of, you know, thing on the internet. Very simple.

The AMA fought this tooth and nail, as recently as the Obama administration. The White House Office of Drug Policy wanted to propose a law to make this happen. AMA lobbyists came to officials of the White House and to the—you know, to the Obama administration, and said, “If you do this, we will fight you tooth and nail. We will not allow this to happen. This is too much of a burden for our members. They don’t have six hours or eight hours to spend looking at information on how to prescribe these drugs more safely.” So, I think they have a lot on their shoulders here. You know, they basically blocked taking a very simple step, that would have been—would have provided tremendous good for patients and for doctors.

AMY GOODMAN: So, the Sacklers didn’t put their name on the drug company and are a very secretive family when it comes to that, but very public when it comes to supporting the big museums, like you said, the Met in New York and the Sackler Wing. Do you think, given that these big art institutions and universities around the country get federal funding, that they should have their name stripped from these wings?

BARRY MEIER: Well, that’s a—you know, that’s really up to the institutions and these medical schools to decide, you know.

AMY GOODMAN: Explain the medical school connection.

BARRY MEIER: Well, you know, they fund a lot of medical schools. They fund a lot of educational programs at medical schools. You know, there’s been a lot—you know, there was a wonderful piece that Christopher Glazek did in Esquire and Patrick Keefe did in The New Yorker about the Sacklers. And, you know, I wrote about them extensively in Pain Killer. They’ve now become the face of this problem. And so, you know, museums and—

AMY GOODMAN: Maybe name the wings after the victims of their drugs.

BARRY MEIER: Well, either that or have information about their donors.

AMY GOODMAN: So, next week begins the big push. The White House, in conjunction with the Ad Council, will be debuting public service messages that “should shock the conscience,” they say. What do you think needs to be done?

BARRY MEIER: Well, I think that we have a two-headed beast that we’re dealing with. One thing that is being done—and, unfortunately, it’s come about a decade too late, but it’s being done now—is a reassessment of the use of drugs like OxyContin in the treatment of medical conditions. As I said, it’s a valuable drug, but there are many other ways to treat pain and treat common types of pain that are just as effective as the use of pain pills. And employers and unions need to make sure that their members and employees are getting the best possible pain treatment, not pills, which are profitable for drug companies and cheap for insurers. So that’s one side of the problem.

AMY GOODMAN: We have 15 seconds.

BARRY MEIER: The other side of the problem is the illegal side, and that’s really a law enforcement enforcement issue, you know, cracking down on companies—countries like China and Mexico, that ship the chemicals that are used to make these horrible and dangerous illegal street drugs.

AMY GOODMAN: Well, I want to thank you for being with us, Barry Meier, author of Pain Killer: An Empire of Deceit and the Origin of America’s Opioid Epidemic, just out this week, updated and expanded, Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist formerly with The New York Times.

That does it for our show. I’ll be speaking in Atlanta, Georgia, on Saturday at the 50th anniversary of The Great Speckled Bird, 5 p.m. at the Chosewood Ballroom. Check our website at

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