The company peddled theories of “pseudo-addiction” (for which the cure was said to be more opioids) and of “opiophobia” among sceptical doctors. The guardrails against harm buckled in the face of Purdue’s wealth and the lawyers and lobbyists it could buy. Regulators endorsed ludicrous claims about the drug’s safety. A serious case brought by federal prosecutors in Virginia in the early 2000s was watered down by the Department of Justice. Thousands of doctors were given all-expenses-paid trips. Altogether, OxyContin took in $35bn in sales.
The results were brutal. Other drug manufacturers soon followed Purdue’s lead. When OxyContin was reformulated in 2010 to make it more difficult to abuse, many Americans who were already addicted switched to heroin and, eventually, fentanyl. In 2019 a team of economists rigorously evaluating OxyContin’s impact concluded that its introduction and marketing “explain a substantial share of overdose deaths” over 20 years.
Purdue is now the subject of many lawsuits brought by state and city governments. Sifting through the reams of evidence unearthed by court proceedings, Mr Keefe shows how callous some of the remaining Sacklers have been over the destruction wrought around them—blaming the problem on immoral addicts rather than the drug, and regarding themselves as victims of a media witch-hunt. Shiftless third-generation types are rendered with evident loathing, skilfully skewered by their own words in court or by Mr Keefe’s (anonymous) sources. One aspiring fashionista wishes an obstreperous journalist would focus less on her last name and more on the hoodies she designs.
The company pleaded guilty to assorted federal charges over its handling of OxyContin in November 2020. No Sacklers, and no executives, were obliged to acknowledge guilt personally, however, “as if the corporation had acted autonomously, like a driverless car”, Mr Keefe observes. Still, the Sackler name is mud. Museums and universities refuse their money. The Sackler wing of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, which houses an ancient Egyptian temple, was targeted by protesters chanting “Temple of greed! Temple of Oxy!” Purdue is bankrupt (and may not pay the retirement benefits of its salespeople).
Yet ongoing legal efforts to claw back the fortunes extracted by the owners appear unlikely to succeed. The implosion of the empire of pain, it seems, comes with a golden parachute.