Last month, I got an email from a dear old friend from Kentucky with devastating news. Her daughter Kathryn had died of an opioid overdose. I was stunned, though perhaps I shouldn’t have been. I knew she had long struggled with addiction: A talented artist and writer, she was prescribed an opioid for wrist pain at 19, and that’s all it took. Eventually, she began using heroin, and now she had overdosed on fentanyl. It’s the same tragic path tens of thousands of other young Americans have traveled.
Kathryn’s mother had a request for me. Could I help her find addresses for members of the Sackler family, who founded and still control the opioid maker Purdue Pharma. She wanted to write to them, as well as executives of Purdue and other companies that sold and distributed opioids, “so they could see what the destruction they created looks like, what a person who was destroyed looked like and how much she mattered.”
I thought of Kathryn and her mother after I learned Monday that the Kentucky Supreme Court denied Purdue’s last-gasp effort to halt the release of sealed company documents that may contain new revelations about its marketing of the prescription opioid OxyContin. It was excessive prescribing of that potent painkiller, by doctors unaware of just how addictive it was, that kickstarted the opioid epidemic two decades ago.
And I thought of how much has changed since that day in early 2016 when STAT reporter David Armstrong approached me, his editor, with an idea. He had heard about a stash of internal Purdue documents under seal in a remote Kentucky courthouse, and he proposed we file a motion to unseal them.
At the time, Purdue still brought to mind a university in Indiana — not a colossus among pain pill makers. Museums, aware of the family’s munificence, were eager to slap the Sacklers’ name on their galleries. And though nearly 100 people a day were dying of opioid overdoses, the epidemic wasn’t yet making daily headlines across America.
It was just three and a half years ago, but it seems an eternity: Most Americans had little understanding of Purdue’s and the secretive Sacklers’ role in the genesis of the opioid crisis.
The Kentucky trove, Dave told me, purportedly contained details about Purdue’s aggressive, and allegedly illegal, marketing of OxyContin, which had made the company billions of dollars since its launch in 1996. Most enticingly, Dave had been told that within those files was the only sworn deposition ever taken of a member of the Sackler family. No Sacklers had ever been required to publicly account for their company’s actions to downplay the addictive nature of OxyContin.
I had seen firsthand the damage OxyContin had done to Kentucky. As a reporter at the Louisville Courier-Journal, I’d written about the early days of the opioid epidemic. In the early 2000s, I’d interviewed family members of young men who had overdosed on a cocktail of pills including OxyContin. I’d written about a pill mill in northeastern Kentucky where the parking lot would fill up with cars from as far away as Florida. Customers paid $80 to $100 in cash to see a doctor who would hand them an OxyContin prescription after being shown an X-ray printed from the internet. Patients would walk outside and hand the scan to the next person in line.
So I immediately saw the importance of the Purdue records. I also happened to know the best media lawyer in Kentucky from my days at the C-J. I called Jon Fleischaker in Louisville and told him what we had in mind. He was excited to take on the case, but he cautioned that it would be a long shot. Our chances of winning would be much less than 50-50.
Jon also said the case could be costly. STAT was a startup, then just a few months old, and Purdue had endless cash at its disposal. Even if we won at the trial court, the company would be sure to appeal all the way up to the state Supreme Court and drag out the litigation as long as possible.
I thought it was worth the fight, but it wasn’t my money. We had to ask John W. Henry, our owner and publisher. I was fairly confident he would give us the go-ahead, but I wasn’t sure. After all, he was relatively new to the journalism game — he knew way more about owning sports teams and running a hedge fund.
Rick Berke, our executive editor, and I outlined what we hoped to do. We told John that taking on Purdue would cost tens of thousands of dollars, and that our lawyers warned us we would probably lose.
He did not hesitate: That’s why I started STAT, he said emphatically, to pursue just this kind of case so the public would learn the truth.
We filed the motion in March 2016, and I was shocked two months later when a local judge in Pike County — a place hard-hit by fatal opioid overdoses — ruled in our favor. “The court sees no higher value than the public (via the media) having access to these discovery materials so that the public can see the facts for themselves,” Circuit Court Judge Steven Combs wrote.
As expected, Purdue appealed. Months went by, then years. Every Friday at 10 a.m., when the Kentucky Court of Appeals announces the week’s opinions, I religiously checked its website. All the while, states, tribes, and local governments were filing some 2,000 lawsuits against Purdue and, in many cases, the Sacklers and other drug makers and distributors. That only heightened interest in the release of the sealed records.
Purdue countered with a PR offensive, portraying the company as a responsible corporate citizen. Newspaper ads highlighted its efforts to combat what it called “the prescription and illicit opioid abuse crisis” — phrasing that blames the crisis on the people taking opioids rather than the addictive drugs themselves.
The appellate ruling — affirming Combs’ decision — finally came last December, almost three years after Dave first raised his idea. Purdue, not surprisingly, asked the state Supreme Court to let it appeal. That’s what the justices decided against last week, meaning the records can now be made public.
Meanwhile, the case became personal for me. I may not be able to find the Sacklers’ addresses for Kathryn’s mom. But now I am hopeful that we will come closer to finally finding — for her and everyone else touched by this crisis — the whole truth about the way Purdue and the Sacklers promoted the sale of OxyContin.
Gideon Gil is a managing editor of STAT and oversaw the legal fight with Purdue and coverage of the opioid crisis.
Several years ago I started looking into Purdue and it’s owners and STAT would Regularly pop up. You guys rock! What you have done to expose the Sacklers will never be forgotten by those of us who have lived the horrors of substance use disease.👍👍
Ah yes, what is the sound of one hand clapping? Thank you STAT, humanity owes you a debt of gratitude 🤡🤡🤡
I agree with everything you said. We too have been without a physician for months now. All we’ve been getting like you stated, is the run around. Now their string CDB down everyones throat for pain relief. I’ve tried it and it doesn’t work for me I don’t like the feeling it gave me at all. As for the vaping, my 19 now 20 year old is one of the kids that bought that lie. I’ve been getting on her to please quit. She says she’s going to stop. I’ve explained it to her and now with the 13 confirmed vaping related deaths, I worry even more.
This country has gone to hell in a game basket and I’m tired of being correlates guinea pig. Thank you for sharing your valuable insights.
You tell them Adam!!! I’m still suffering with nothing. My question is WHO IS GETTING ALL THIS MONEY FROM THE LAWSUITS??? NOT THE PATIENTS. Wake up people, this so called opiod crisis is just a ploy for the government to make money!!!! Thier siezing the doctors assests, suing the pharmcutical companies just to get a big payout!!!! They don’t give a shit about people dying ! I’m disabled from being abused for years by my ex husband and couldn’t get help from the police or the courts then! Us pain patients have to suffer because drug addicts o.d. it’s bullshit and it’s got to stop!!!! I have no quality of life at all!!! When I had my medicine, I excercised, was active and able to take care of my self ,my home, and my disabled husband who has Parkinson’s disease and epilepsy!!!! He’s suffering too without his pain medicine! Oh and a little tip about ibuprofen, read the box or bottle warnings. It says causes stomach bleeding, heart failure, and stroke! I’ve already had two stroke in the last three years!!! That’s without taking nsaids! Thanks stat for your incompetents!!! When the payout comes from Purdue, I want my cut!!! For pain and suffering!!!
They always leave the pain patients out of this discussion. In their zeal to prosecute the same bad apples they marketed for, they followed the lead of Perdue’s propagandists and blamed people with pain. The insurance industry paid some psychological researchers to come up with a false counter narrative. Now it is as if people with injuries, botched surgeries, genetic disorders don’t exist anymore. In advertising they are not required to tell the whole story, just the parts that increase profits. Of course denying pain relief to people in pain, has been profitable too. They conflated chronic pain with addiction, so they could smear people with chronci pain. I read that 50% of people with long term intractable pain no longer even have physicians. Physicians have turned them away. of course they did the same thing with the addicted forcing them to seek out illicit and even more dangerous drugs.
In the US the only sites that patients can seek medical information from are all marketing sites. Most of the real scientific research is behind paywalls, or require expensive subscriptions. Pain is a really good topic for marketing, because people in pain are desperate and will buy anything in order to get relief. They sold every kind of gimmicky fraudulent medications, devices and programs to people with pain. The FDA hid the adverse incident reports in order to help the fraudsters.
There used to be laws and regualtions about marketing, but according to the CDC anything goes as long as it contains a public health message. That was how they marketed JUUL’s nicotine to children for 5 years, all they had to do was tell children that cigarettes are bad. That allowed them to introduce vaping to kids who had never smoked cigarettes. The same thing with the anti vaxxers, the CDC, and FTC let them peddle the nonsense as long as they made a public health claim.
It is looking like it is too late for any common sense. I have been following this for 20 years and things have only gotten worse for pain patients. They are openly discriminated against, and pain is ignored, even when it is a symptom of cancer or an underlying condition. There is no one tracking any of that. Just like the people who are taken advantage of by the insurance industry factual news that reflects poorly on any corporation is censored. Ignorance has been really profitable, they were able to peddle lot of dangerous alternatives for pain that did not even work. The media has been silent on that, just like they were silent about all of the opiates that were sold to the black market by big corporations.
We are in post truth America, where the corporate media Gas Lights us all daily to increase corporate profits.
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