- Barry Meierauthor of Pain Killer: An Empire of Deceit and the Origin of America’s Opioid Epidemic. He was the first journalist to shine a national spotlight on the abuse of OxyContin, and is a former reporter at The New York Times, where he worked for nearly three decades. He has won the Pulitzer Prize and two Polk Awards for his past reporting on the intersection of business, medicine and public health.
The state of Oklahoma has reached a $270 million agreement with Purdue Pharma—the makers of OxyContin—settling a lawsuit that claimed the company contributed to the deaths of thousands of Oklahoma residents by downplaying the risk of opioid addiction and overstating the drug’s benefits. The state says more Oklahomans have died from opioids over the last decade than have been killed in vehicle accidents. More than $100 million from the settlement will fund a new addiction treatment and research center at Oklahoma State University in Tulsa. “It’s really just the first move in what is a very complicated legal chess game,” says Barry Meier, author of “Pain Killer: An Empire of Deceit and the Origin of America’s Opioid Epidemic.” Meier was the first journalist to shine a national spotlight on the abuse of OxyContin. He asks, “Is this money going to be used wisely in terms of treating addiction?”
AMY GOODMAN: The state of Oklahoma has reached a $270 million agreement with Purdue Pharma, the makers of OxyContin, settling a lawsuit that claimed the company contributed to the deaths of thousands of Oklahoma residents by downplaying the risk of opioid addiction and overstating the drug’s benefits. Oklahoma says more Oklahomans have died from opioids over the last decade than have been killed in vehicle accidents. More than $100 million from the settlement will fund a new addiction treatment and research center at Oklahoma State University in Tulsa. This is Oklahoma Attorney General Mike Hunter announcing the agreement Wednesday.
ATTORNEY GENERAL MIKE HUNTER: It is a new day in Oklahoma and for the nation in our battle against addiction and the opioid epidemic. … The endowment will establish a foundation that will receive an initial $102.5 million that will go specifically to the OSU Center for Health Sciences Center for Wellness & Recovery. And beginning on January 1 of next year, the foundation will receive an annual $15 million payment over a 5-year period. And during that same 5-year timeframe, it will receive ongoing contributions of addiction, treatment medicine, both for rescue and recovery, and that has a market value of $20 million. So, $4 million in rescue and treatment drugs over a 5-year period. Another 12-and-a-half million from the settlement has been set aside to providing funds that will directly abate and address the opioid epidemic’s effects in Oklahoma’s towns, cities and counties. Purdue will also make a $60 million payment to offset all of the state’s litigation costs to this point.
AMY GOODMAN: Purdue is one of several firms named in the lawsuit that alleges pharmaceutical companies like Johnson & Johnson and Teva Pharmaceutical knowingly helped create the opioid crisis. The trial for the other companies is still on track for May 28th. This is the first settlement Purdue has made amid some 2,000 additional lawsuits connecting its painkiller OxyContin to the opioid crisis. Government data has found deadly opioid overdoses are responsible for nearly 50,000 deaths per year in the United States alone. Purdue argues U.S. Food and Drug Administration-approved labels for its opioids carried warnings about the risk of abuse and misuse associated with them.
Theresa Sackler, the chair of the Sackler Trust and widow of late Purdue Pharma co-owner Mortimer Sackler, responded Tuesday to the settlement with Oklahoma, saying, “I am deeply saddened by the addiction crisis in America and support the actions Purdue Pharma is taking to help tackle the situation, whilst still rejecting the false allegations made against the company and several members of the Sackler family,” she said.
The settlement comes as the Sacklers face increasing outrage for their role in the opioid crisis. Known worldwide for their patronage of the arts, the Sackler name appears in museums including the Metropolitan Museum in New York. But in the past week, the Tate museums in London and the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum in New York responded to immense public pressure and announced they’ll no longer accept money from the Sacklers. The National Portrait Gallery in London announced it’s canceling a $1.3 million donation from the Sackler Trust. The Sackler Trust declined a request from Democracy Now! to appear on the broadcast.
Well, for more, we’re joined now in New York by Barry Meier, the first journalist to shine a national spotlight on the abuse of OxyContin, former reporter at The New York Times, where he worked for nearly three decades. He’s author of the book, just recently newly released, Pain Killer: An Empire of Deceit and the Origin of America’s Opioid Epidemic. Barry Meier won the Pulitzer Prize and two Polk Awards for his past reporting on the intersection of business, medicine and public health.
Welcome to Democracy Now!
BARRY MEIER: Thanks, Amy.
AMY GOODMAN: So, the significance of the Oklahoma settlement, Barry?
BARRY MEIER: Well, this settlement is the first settlement in what is likely to be a wave of settlements or a wave of cases brought against Purdue Pharma, as well as other manufacturers and distributors of opioids. It is also significant because it comes amid a threatened bankruptcy filing by Purdue that would halt all this litigation. So it’s really just the first move in what is a very complicated legal chess game going on.
AMY GOODMAN: Do you think that’s why Oklahoma settled?
BARRY MEIER: Oh, absolutely.
AMY GOODMAN: Because of the threat of bankruptcy?
BARRY MEIER: I think there’s probably no question about it, and it’s probably why Purdue also settled. You know, there were depositions scheduled—that is to say that several members of the Sackler family were scheduled to give pretrial testimony—a week ago, here in New York City. Those depositions were abruptly canceled. And I think that was a major turning point in the company’s decision to settle and in Oklahoma’s decision to settle.
AMY GOODMAN: So, what do we know about this Oklahoma settlement, this $270 million settlement?
BARRY MEIER: Well, as you mentioned in your introduction, approximately $100 million of this money will go to fund an addiction treatment center at Oklahoma State University. I think it’s vital that moneys be made available to treat those afflicted with opioid addiction. And the Sackler family, even though they were not defendants in this case—I mean, I think that’s a very illuminating aspect to this case—they’ve agreed also to make money available to this addiction treatment center.
AMY GOODMAN: So, explain that, the difference between Purdue Pharma and the Sackler family and trust.
BARRY MEIER: So, essentially, Purdue Pharma, the manufacturer, is a—was a named defendant in this lawsuit. The members of the Sackler family were not mentioned by name. They are mentioned by name in hundreds of other lawsuits, but here, in the Oklahoma case, they were not mentioned. They had no actual personal liability or prospective personal liability in this case. Nonetheless, to buy peace and, apparently, to avoid being deposed in this case, they agreed to contribute to the settlement.
AMY GOODMAN: And what about this center that would be set up at Oklahoma State at Tulsa?
BARRY MEIER: Well, we don’t know the exact parameters of that yet. I mean, it’s going to be very interesting. We know that certain ways of treating addiction—the problem of addiction work, they’re extremely expensive. They involve not just the use of addiction treatment drugs, but extensive psychological and behavioral counseling to those afflicted with addiction. So, I think, you know, what kinds of programs are going to be set up? That’s going to be the real test here. Is this money going to be used wisely in terms of treating addiction? Or is it going to go into the pocket of people who essentially are running addiction treatment mills, much in the same way that doctors ran pain treatment mills?
AMY GOODMAN: Can you talk about the Massachusetts lawsuit and documents from this separate lawsuit against Purdue and the Sackler family, what they revealed?
BARRY MEIER: Well, they’re very interesting. And I think the Massachusetts case and the Oklahoma case are counterparts to each other. In the Massachusetts case, the attorney general there was very aggressive about disclosing internal corporate records which indicate that members of the Sackler family played an intimate role in the operations of Purdue Pharma. That’s an area that the Sacklers, I think, do not want to get into at all.
Interestingly, in the case of Oklahoma, Attorney General Hunter has apparently agreed to seal all those records, to keep those records concealed, and, in some ways, is helping Purdue hide the history of this epidemic. I mean, I don’t—I’ve never spoken with governor—I mean, with Attorney General Hunter, but I think he probably does need to offer some public explanation about why he has agreed to maintain a seal of secrecy on these records.
AMY GOODMAN: Well, you talk about, in a piece you did for The New York Times just a few weeks ago, Sackler testimony appearing to conflict with federal investigation. I believe this has to do with Kentucky.
BARRY MEIER: Correct. There was a deposition that was made public very recently through the efforts of a couple of news organizations, in which Richard Sackler, who’s the son of Raymond Sackler and served for a while as president of Purdue Pharma, makes certain claims about when he knew about OxyContin’s abuse. His statements in that deposition are at odds with documents that were unearthed by federal prosecutors when they were doing an investigation of Purdue back in the early 2000s. I kind of sketch out those documents, both in the new edition of Pain Killer and in an article that ran in The New York Times this year. So we have, basically, a conflict between what Richard Sackler testified, what these documents suggest he and other members of the Sackler family knew. And the only way to kind of bring this issue to closure and bring it to light is for these documents—and all these documents—to become public.
AMY GOODMAN: And then you have this huge popular understanding of what’s taken place. The Sacklers, who own Purdue Pharma, maker of OxyContin, having faced increased outrage in recent months for their role in the crisis. The family known worldwide for their patronage of the arts, and the Sackler name, though it doesn’t appear on the drugs—that’s Purdue Pharma—it appears in the wings of museums all over the world, including the Metropolitan Museum in New York. In the past week, the Tate museums in London, the Guggenheim—talk about what they have decided.
BARRY MEIER: Well, I mean, they have decided that they do not want any money from the Sacklers. They apparently have taken the position that somehow this money is tainted, that a portion of this money was derived from the street sales of OxyContin. And they don’t want to have anything to do with that.
What is fascinating is that the Sackler family has denied any wrongdoing. They’ve stated that the documents that were released by the Massachusetts state attorney general were cherry-picked, they were intended to cast the company in an evil light. But they have it within their power, if they want the story of their family to be known. They can release all the documents. They can make these documents public. And then history will be able to determine what the Sackler family did when they were confronted with a public health catastrophe involving their company’s drug.
AMY GOODMAN: So, in February, protesters took over the Guggenheim Museum to call out its relationship with the Sackler family. Artist Nan Goldin, who herself became addicted to OxyContin, has led the calls for art institutions to stop taking money and disassociate themselves from the Sacklers. She and other protesters staged a die-in at the Guggenheim, after dropping thousands of fake prescriptions with anti-Sackler messages from the museum’s famous winding walkway. The action was a reference to a quote by a member of the Sackler family who once claimed the launch of OxyContin would be, quote, “followed by a blizzard of prescriptions that would bury the competition.” A protest also took place at the Metropolitan Museum. Nan Goldin tweeted, “The Sackler family paid $75 million in the Oklahoma settlement today which admits their culpability. By the way, that’s only 0.2% of the $35 billion in profits they made from OxyContin,” the artist Nan Goldin said.
BARRY MEIER: Well, I mean, to be clear, the Sackler family denies any culpability. But nonetheless, I think what is happening, through the efforts of Nan Goldin and others, is a realization that museums need to be—need to take account: Where did this money come from? What did these families do to earn this money? And just as importantly, what didn’t they do?
Throughout this entire epidemic—I’ve been covering this for 20 years—there was not a single point, up until yesterday, when the Sackler family said, “You know what? We’re going to take $300 million or $200 million or $100 million, and fund an addiction treatment center. That’s what we want our charity to be. That’s what we’re going to do as a family.” It had to come to this. It had to come to a point, 20 years later, where they were basically, you know, forced, under threat of a lawsuit, to take this action.
AMY GOODMAN: In just one minute, can you sum up what it is that they did over these decades?
BARRY MEIER: They did nothing. They hid behind lawyers. They hid behind public relations people. There has not been a single point during this 20-year period where any member of the Sackler family has stepped forward and said, “We’re defending this drug on this basis,” or, “We’re taking this public health action on this basis.”
AMY GOODMAN: But explain how they pushed the drug.
BARRY MEIER: Oh, in terms of Purdue Pharma. Purdue Pharma basically turned the drug industry and the medical profession upside down. They convinced doctors that this drug was safe. They convinced doctors that this drug had a lower risk of addiction. They admitted in 2007 that they had lied to doctors, they had lied to patients, they had lied to public health authorities, that the entire marketing of OxyContin had been built on a basis of deceit. And basically, they—
AMY GOODMAN: And talk about the increasing potency of these drugs, that they understood would kill people.
BARRY MEIER: Well, they certainly understood that people could become addicted to these drugs. They understood that the higher dosages of these drugs could pose the greatest health threats to people. And they basically, certainly for a number of years, incentivized their sales representatives to market these drugs and to convince these doctors to use these drugs at the highest dosages possible. As it turns out, those higher dosages also brought the greatest profits to the company.
AMY GOODMAN: We’re talking to Barry Meier, the Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist, author of Pain Killer: An Empire of Deceit and the Origin of America’s Opioid Epidemic. He’ll stay with us for the hour, and we’ll be joined by many others. We’ll look at how the opioid crisis isn’t white and also how it particularly has affected Native Americans. Stay with us.