Having edited a collection on the cultures of addiction and a journal edition on the topic (see the two links below), I regret we did not tackle the drug industry head on. Opioids, synthetic drugs derived from the opium poppy and more powerful than morphine, were initially prescribed for cancer, but then through aggressive marketing became prescribed for mild pain creating thousands of addicts. By 2012 American doctors wrote 282 million prescriptions for opioid painkillers. In 2016 alone 42,000 people died from opioid overdoses according to the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. In 2017 this was declared a public health emergency.
Next time you head to London’s Serpentine Gallery in Kensington Gardens note that it is the Serpentine Sackler Gallery. Or if you have a thing for the Bard, do consider when you are at Shakespeare’s Globe it is the Sackler Studios. If you are in the Big Apple you may come across the Sackler Wing at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, plus the Sackler Center for Arts Education at the Guggenheim. Over in Paris, monsieur? Head to the Sackler Wing at the Louvre. And what of this philanthropic family? They own and run Purdue Pharma, the maker of Oxycontin. This is the source of most of the Sackler’s estimated $13 billion.
US prescriptions for this drug went from 670,000 in 1996 to six million in 2002. Members of the family are now named in a claim by the state of Masachusetts filed in June 2018, after similar cases were filed in May in Nevada, Texas, Florida, North Dakota and Tennessee, with 433 claims in total by cities, counties, states and Native American tribes against manufacturers, distributors and retailers. It has claimed an estimated 200,000 lives. But people are still cashing in. According to a study by The New England Journal of Medicine in 2017 the price of one injectable treatment had gone from $690 in 2014 to $4,500 in 2016. What happens now might be akin to the battle with the large tobacco companies of the 1990s who agreed to pay $206 billion to settle claims from 46 states for tobacco-related healthcare costs. Judy Lewent, a director of Glaxosmithkline, Britain’s biggest drug maker, is being sued having served on the board of Purdue which is at heart of the scandal from 2009 to 2014. Other companies named in the lawsuit include Johnson & Johnson, Allergan based in Dublin and Teva of Israel. For more on this see, ‘Opioid nightmare haunts corporate America’, by James Dean, ’The Times’, July 9 2018, pp, 40-41.