September 21, 2023

A new Netflix TV present in regards to the origins and penalties of the opioid epidemic is coming to the small display. The present, “Painkiller,” is a fictional story primarily based on actual occasions that transpired across the Sackler household, Purdue Pharma, and the advertising and distribution of their drug, OxyContin. It provides to the rising listing of tv reveals and films round America’s opioid disaster, together with Netflix’s personal “The Pharmacist,” Hulu’s “Dopesick,” and HBO’s “The Crime of the Century.”

The opioid disaster has plagued the U.S. for over twenty years, beginning with prescription opioids within the late Nineteen Nineties, then heroin and fentanyl within the early 2010s. Practically 600,000 Americans died from opioid overdose between 1999 to 2021, with over 200,000 of them from prescription opioids like oxycodone and hydrocodone. In 2017, one of many highest years of prescription opioid-related deaths on file, the financial burden of the opioid epidemic — together with well being care bills and misplaced productiveness — was estimated to be over $1 trillion.

Court filings present that Purdue, owned by the Sackler household, earned greater than $35 billion from the gross sales of OxyContin, which was permitted by the FDA in 1995.

The restricted Netflix collection, which premieres on Aug. 10, relies on a ebook written by journalist Barry Meier, titled “Ache Killer: An Empire of Deceit and the Origin of America’s Opioid Epidemic.” Whereas working on the New York Instances, Meier supplied groundbreaking protection of Purdue Pharma and the Sackler household beginning within the early 2000s because the opioid epidemic started.

STAT requested Meier about his seminal reporting because the epidemic emerged, the decades-long saga of Purdue Pharma and OxyContin, the upcoming Netflix present primarily based on his ebook, and what viewers ought to take away from the present because it pertains to the present state of the opioid epidemic.

What’s “Painkiller” about and what can folks anticipate in the event that they watch it?

It’s actually in regards to the origins of the opioid epidemic and why it occurred. However as a result of it’s a dramatic adaptation, it’s instructed by the expertise of characters. It’s an ensemble of actors who’re enjoying out threads of tales, narratives of tales, that weave collectively and give you what I believe is an engrossing approach of pulling you into the story. … I believe persons are going to seek out it a very thrilling, attention-grabbing present.

To what extent did your ebook affect the present’s plot?

I spoke at size with the screenwriters and supplied them with lots of the unique materials that I had gathered when writing the ebook. We had prolonged discussions about my expertise overlaying the story, and my views on the story. And so, I believe each the ebook and my experiences and observations knowledgeable what they had been doing and the way they had been approaching the story. And there are a variety of scenes within the collection that mirror issues that occurred to me whereas I used to be engaged on both the articles for the [New York] Instances or the ebook.

Each present has protagonists and antagonists. Who’re the villains within the present and what do they signify?

Once I first began writing about this entire episode twenty years in the past, my preliminary intuition was, oh, properly, that is nearly cash. That is nearly this drug firm spreading round cash, these medical doctors pocketing cash. I believe as journalists, we are usually pushed by the concept cash is the last word corruptor. However what I rapidly got here to understand is that there was one other drive that was contributing to this entire catastrophe, and that was the facility of ideology. The ability of perception.

These are medical doctors and firm executives who suppose, I’m going to grow to be one, extremely profitable, two, extremely rich, and three, change the course of drugs by promoting this drug. As a result of this drug is a miracle, a marvel drug, a present to sufferers. And within the course of, I’m going to be celebrated as the one who introduced this drug to drugs. [Richard Sackler] struck me, from the kinds of supplies which have come out in litigation about him, as the kind of one who wished to see himself grow to be an icon within the medical group. And I believe that carries by in a really unlucky approach in how they went about selling OxyContin.

In your opinion, what’s the largest failure or injustice that allowed this to occur?

You may look throughout the board. You had medical doctors who, as a result of they had been on an ideological mission, distorted science in a approach that as a layman, I discovered appalling. You had an organization, Purdue Pharma, that hid info from medical doctors — we realized in a while that they knew instantly when the drug got here onto the market that it was being abused. You had regulators who didn’t require the corporate to provide the kind of proof that they need to have been required to provide to make this unimaginable declare about its lack of abusiveness. And then you definitely had all these folks which are alleged to be charged with defending us — lawmakers, policymakers, regulators, legislation enforcement officers — who had been primarily asleep on the change, or cowardly, as a result of this epidemic simply continued to develop and develop.

How did you get began investigating Purdue Pharma and OxyContin?

Considered one of my editors got here as much as me in 2001 and stated, I simply bought a name from a buddy of mine who’s a regulator on a pharmacy board, and he was telling me this loopy story that primarily went like this: There’s a brand new prescription drug that’s turning up on the road. It’s everywhere. And the factor that’s bizarre about it’s that the representatives of the corporate that makes it are telling medical doctors and pharmacists that it’s much less vulnerable to abuse. We do not know what’s happening.

Ultimately that tip began a really prolonged path of reporting that may take me to the cities the place the drug was rampant on the streets, into the regulatory system that permitted it, and to the actions of Purdue Pharma, which was then advertising it like loopy. They had been having junkets for medical doctors, and having a whole lot of medical doctors on a speaker’s bureau selling this drug to different physicians. By the point I bought very deeply into it, I believed, there’s a much bigger story right here. There’s a ebook right here in regards to the advertising of this drug, the household behind the drug, and the way we deal with ache and drug habit.

What was your response to your ebook flopping in 2003 when it was first revealed?

Bummed. Individuals write books as a result of they anticipate different folks to learn them. And folks write books they suppose are essential as a result of they anticipate folks to concentrate to them. I struck out on each these counts. So, it definitely wasn’t what I hoped for. However then once more, this isn’t what I used to be anticipating both — that the identical ebook that was ignored for over a decade would grow to be a foundational ebook that different folks would base their books on. Or that I might grow to be a personality in these books, and that it will discover yet one more life as a foundation for a tv present.

Did you anticipate the entire saga persevering with for over twenty years after you first began reporting on it?

I used to be surprised. I imply, there are particular markers on this story in that, every time occasions reached that marker I believed, OK, that is over. It’s carried out, time to maneuver on. Considered one of them was in 2003 when the ebook got here out, and one other one was in 2007 when Purdue and three of its prime executives plead responsible to prison fees of the Justice Division. However then in 2017, somebody gave me this extraordinary doc — the memo written by prosecutors investigating that case in 2007. And people prosecutors had very a lot wished to cost the Purdue executives with very severe felonies that may have despatched them to jail if that they had been convicted. The Justice Division didn’t help that and mainly compelled these prosecutors to chop a plea deal that allowed the executives to plead responsible to misdemeanors, that are pretty minor crimes. However this doc had a big a part of the inner proof that these prosecutors deliberate to current to a grand jury to hunt the felony fees in opposition to the executives — inner Purdue emails, testimonies that folks had given — it was this extremely damning doc, and I used to be surprised by how a lot these prosecutors had realized. After which utterly disheartened by the truth that this case had by no means gone to trial. I truthfully do imagine that if it had gone to trial — even when the Purdue executives had gotten off — the data that may have come out throughout that trial would have woke up medical doctors to how this firm had betrayed their belief in such a profound approach. I believe it will have completely upset the apple cart and induced medical doctors to rethink not solely how they had been prescribing OxyContin, however their relationships with drug firms basically.

Why do you suppose that, regardless of all this proof, the case by no means went to trial?

As a result of within the Bush administration, the highest officers within the Justice Division had been horrified by the concept white-collar executives had been going to be charged with crimes that might ship them to jail. We dwell in a society the place there’s a two-tiered system of justice. When you’re poor, or an individual with out energy, you go to jail. When you’re rich and might afford one of the best prison attorneys, you don’t go to jail. And on this case, there was mainly a revolving door between the Justice Division and these prime tier company protection corporations. They usually didn’t need to get into the enterprise of prosecuting executives, or pissing off these corporations and never with the ability to land a job with them. It wasn’t till very, very not too long ago that the federal government began sending drug firm executives to jail. At the moment, there was no abdomen for it. Principally, they had been cowards.

As we speak, Purdue is bankrupt and dissolved for restructuring, and the Sackler household can pay $6 billion towards treating and stopping drug habit in trade for immunity. Do you suppose the story is over now?

Presuming that the Supreme Court docket doesn’t hear this case, it’s over. The story of Purdue, and the story of the Sacklers, is over. It’s ending in a approach that’s nearly as stunning because it started, which is that lastly, after twenty years, a big sum of cash is being devoted in direction of drug habit remedy. The idea that an extremely rich household was in a position to spend $6 billion of their cash to purchase what is basically an insurance coverage coverage is thoughts boggling as properly. So the Sacklers could also be gone, however their legacy is one that may dwell on. Their names have been taken down by museums and medical faculties. They usually definitely now occupy the place within the annals of historical past that they by no means anticipated to seek out themselves.

In “Painkiller,” does the Sackler household come throughout as kind of responsible than it performed out in courts?

The Sackler household has by no means been charged with against the law — it’s essential to state that. Additionally they contend that they by no means did something mistaken. However as I discussed, after we began our dialogue and also you requested me about antagonists, if you stroll away from the collection, chances are you’ll come to the conclusion that how we take into consideration that phrase “antagonist” must be broadened. As a result of folks can find yourself doing dangerous issues for all types of causes and forces. To me, that’s one of many actually highly effective issues in regards to the present. It doesn’t take a easy strategy to the story. It makes you perceive that every one the people concerned are very advanced.

When viewers watch this present, what do you hope they’ll take away from it because it pertains to the state of the opioid disaster within the U.S. right now?

It’s important that we take note of [the opioid crisis] and perceive the forces that set it into movement. As a result of these forces have all the time been with us and can all the time be with us. All through my lengthy profession as a reporter, I noticed them play out time and time once more. They may have concerned totally different medicine or totally different medical units or totally different surgical procedures, however the underpinning was all the time the identical. The medicine, say, like OxyContin, whose advantages outweighed its dangers for a small variety of sufferers, was marketed to an enormous variety of sufferers as a result of the producer wished to make an enormous sum of money. Then medical doctors bought on board, both as a result of they might make cash from the advertising of this product, or as a result of they hoped to make their status by it. After which regulators and lawmakers and the folks which are alleged to be careful for our well-being regarded the opposite approach. Then this hearth begins to burn, and abruptly it explodes. It occurs time and time once more. Till we perceive the way it occurs, and methods to cease it from taking place, we’re going to be in a state of affairs just like the opioid epidemic once more.