Authors try to avoid writing the same book twice. I couldn’t.
My book “Pain Killer” first came out in 2003. It was the first one to tell the story of OxyContin; its maker, Purdue Pharma; and the company’s wealthy and secretive owners, the Sackler family. The book appeared at the dawn of the opioid epidemic and the sun quickly set on it. A year after publication, it went out of print.
To say I was disappointed is an understatement. I thought “Pain Killer” told an important story about the chaos unleashed when the best intentions of doctors to solve a problem — in this case, pain — get hijacked by the drug industry. The book’s account alone of Raymond Sackler, a little-known but pivotal figure who transformed drug marketing and compromised medical practice in the process, struck me as worth the price of admission.
Book buyers didn’t agree and I was given an opportunity every author dreads — the chance to buy remaindered copies of the book for $1 apiece. There wasn’t even interest in a paperback, and the book’s original publisher returned all rights back to me. (In time, that proved to be a blessing, but it sure didn’t feel like it then.)
Fast forward several years to a May night in 2007. The scene is a Mexican restaurant in Roanoke, Va. Over dinner, the local United States attorney, John Brownlee, shows me the draft of a press release he plans to issue the next day, announcing a development that will make the front page of newspapers like the New York Times. Purdue Pharma and three of its top executives had agreed to plead guilty to charges in connection with the company’s deceptive promotion that OxyContin was less prone to abuse and addiction than traditional opioids.
According to the release, at a planned press conference Brownlee would personally thank me for writing about OxyContin, both as a New York Times reporter and as the author of “Pain Killer.” I was flattered, but asked him to delete the reference because I was reporting on the story and didn’t want to be part of it.
Still, I was happy that my work had had an impact, and after leaving the restaurant, I made a long drive to Abingdon, Va., a quaint town in the far western part of the state. It is home to the federal courthouse where the three Purdue Pharma executives would enter their pleas the following morning. Defense lawyers had asked Brownlee not to alert the news media to the plea deal until the three executives were back on a corporate jet returning to Stamford, Conn., where Purdue Pharma is based. But he had made one exception. As the three executives approached the courthouse, a New York Times photographer and I popped out from behind parked cars. The trio and their lawyers did not look happy to see us.
In the years that followed, the pace of the opioid epidemic accelerated and morphed. No longer was it limited to prescription painkillers like OxyContin but increasingly included heroin and deadly counterfeit versions of fentanyl. A wave of new books about the crisis appeared, most notably “Dreamland,” by Sam Quinones. “Pain Killer” became a touchstone often cited in these accounts. Some people even began describing the book as “prescient,” which I can assure you I am not.
During those years, I turned my attention to a range of other subjects, including the case of a CIA consultant who had mysteriously disappeared in Iran. But not long ago, I came into possession of a document about Purdue Pharma and OxyContin that changed everything, including what I thought I knew about the story.
It was a confidential 120-page report written by the U.S. Department of Justice team of prosecutors working for John Brownlee. Their investigation of OxyContin had culminated in the 2007 plea deal.
Under that agreement, the three Purdue Pharma executives had pled guilty to a misdemeanor that held them liable only as the drug maker’s “responsible” officers and did not accuse them of any wrongdoing. But the report showed that prosecutors had recommended charging the men with serious felonies. It was also filled with a treasure trove of internal Purdue Pharma emails and records that offered a detailed look at what Purdue knew about OxyContin’s abuse and when the company knew it.
Sadly, all that evidence was buried when top Justice Department officials in the George W. Bush administration refused to back prosecutors’ calls to indict the Purdue officials.
A decade later, lawmakers are now proposing that drug company executives found guilty of illegally marketing painkillers should be imprisoned. States and cities have filed lawsuits against Purdue Pharma and other opioid makers. Museums and institutions that received donations from members of the Sackler family involved with Purdue Pharma are facing scrutiny over those gifts.
It struck me that the information unearthed by the Justice Department prosecutors can help inform those efforts. The mountain of evidence contained in the report also brings the story of OxyContin and Purdue Pharma full circle by providing an extraordinary inside look at the secretive drug maker’s early knowledge about OxyContin abuse and addiction. What prosecutors believed they had unearthed was a corporate cover-up with massive public health consequences.
Given all this new information, it was clear to me that I had to write “Pain Killer” again. Like I said, authors would rather avoid writing the same book twice. But sometimes you have to.
Barry Meier is a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist and the author of “Pain Killer: An Empire of Deceit and the Origins of America’s Opioid Epidemic” (Random House, May 2018).