What started as an obscure legal fight in eastern Kentucky more than three years ago has reached a pop culture pinnacle: a mention on HBO’s Sunday night lineup.
On Sunday’s “Last Week Tonight with John Oliver,” the host did one of his trademark deep dives into the opioid addiction crisis, spotlighting the alleged role that drug distributors and manufacturers had in starting the conflagration. The segment focused partly on a deposition of Dr. Richard Sackler, a member of the billionaire family that controls OxyContin-maker Purdue Pharma and a onetime Purdue president. The deposition about Purdue’s marketing of the painkiller was filed under seal in a Kentucky courthouse, and STAT filed a motion in 2016 to have it made public.
“It’s a story of how major companies acted wildly irresponsibly, skirted any meaningful consequences, and for the most part, avoided public scrutiny,” Oliver said in his introduction.
As Oliver noted, a transcript of the 2015 deposition was obtained by STAT and ProPublica in February, revealing that Sackler had embraced a Purdue plan to conceal OxyContin’s strength from doctors.
Oliver said the release of the deposition marked a rare chance for the public to read how a member of the Sackler family discussed the company’s work and the addiction crisis. The Sacklers, who have donated millions to medical centers, museums, and cultural institutions, have said little publicly about Purdue and its medications, the main source of their wealth.
Because video of the deposition has not been made public, Oliver’s show also got four actors — Michael Keaton, Bryan Cranston, Michael K. Williams, and Richard Kind — to portray Sackler and read portions of it. The show also launched a website that features the clips and court documents.
Oliver’s focus on the Sackler family reflects the increasing scrutiny on the family for their alleged role in the opioid crisis. Some 2,000 lawsuits have been filed against opioid manufacturers, distributors, and others in recent years by states, cities, counties, and tribes, but more recently, some of them have named members of the Sackler family as defendants as well. A number of institutions that have received donations from the family have recently said they will no longer accept such gifts.
“Richard Sackler’s deposition should not be something that Purdue gets to bury, like it’s buried so many other things over the years,” Oliver said.
The publication of the deposition, which was taken as part of a lawsuit brought by the state of Kentucky against Purdue, stems from March 2016, when STAT originally asked a Kentucky judge to unseal it. When the Kentucky lawsuit was settled, the deposition, as well as a trove of other documents about the marketing of OxyContin, was sealed.
The judge ordered the documents to be released publicly in May 2016, and after Purdue appealed the ruling, a three-member appellate panel upheld the ruling in December 2018. Purdue has asked the state Supreme Court in Kentucky to review the case, meaning the documents — including a video of the deposition — remain under seal as the court decides whether or not to hear an appeal.
Oliver’s segment started with a focus on drug distributors, which have faced criticism for flooding communities with opioid painkillers without oversight.
In addition to the reporting from STAT and ProPublica, the segment highlighted work done by the Charleston Gazette-Mail, the Washington Post, the Los Angeles Times, the New Yorker, and the New York Times.