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Meet the family

James Morris-Knight @Jimmymk93 photo
James Morris-Knight @Jimmymk93United Kingdom
Meet the family
In the first of his investigative exclusives on the secretive Sackler family and their British-based operations; James Morris-Knight explores the origin of the American family's wealth, their strategies and their corporate practice.

The Sackler name is banded around these days; they are the face of the opioid epidemic and for good reason, they’re the go to people to shake your fist and point your finger at.

Previously known for their carefully crafted public image, the malign elite contributing generously to the western world’s most important charitable organisations, art institutions and museums. Little was known about them by the everyday person previous to a few years ago, even though they’d changed the very nature of pharmaceuticals.

In the post-war boom the pharmaceutical industry exploded and three doctor brothers were at the forefront of it. The Sackler brothers; Raymond, Mortimer and lesser known Arthur, they had an enterprising spirit that was typical of other fresh-faced leaders of industry in the USA, but not in medicine so much.

Between the 1950’s and late 1970’s they embarked on a strategy which transformed the market and laid the foundations for the success of their late 20th century and early 21st century wunder-drug Oxycontin.

The Sacklers fully integrated all wings of industry under one umbrella; design the drug, make the drug, sell the drug. This is a typical and familiar design of the big corporations now, but at the time, it was revolutionary.

The lesser known brother Arthur, had his roots not only in medicine but also advertising; he was later bought out by Raymond and Mortimer, but not before leaving his stamp on the Sackler’s corporate DNA.

The New Yorker reports that Arthur, immersed in the golden age of advertising, bought and sold pharmaceutical trade magazines, used all of the glamorous and innovative techniques of the period but had little time for anything else.

Around this period, the other two brothers bought out a patent medical company in NYC called Purdue Frederick. This company would later evolve into the Purdue we know now, and whilst Arthur would later split from the two and sell his stake in the company, his influence provided the basis for the future corporations culture.

In the 1980’s the brothers Sackler; Raymond and Mortimer, had great success with a slow-release morphine painkiller called MS Contin, but when the drug's patent was nearing an end, Purdue needed something to have an edge on their competitors.

The answer was Oxycontin.

Much like its predecessor Oxycontin is a chemical relative of Opium with slow release capability. Though, this pill came with a punch. The company used pure Oxycodone, which was used in other drugs but not widely, they also supersized the doses; offering a range that started at the lowly 10 grams to a massive 160 grams.

In drug circles, the 160 gram measurement is known as “the death pill.”

The company released the drug in 1997, in a marketing campaign that would put the likes of Apple, Coca Cola or Nike to shame. They enlisted an army of sales reps, flew consultants into resorts for weekend conferences and created the market and the intrigue by Arthur-esque techniques through trade publications, advertisements and published articles.

Richard, Raymond’s executive son, was instrumental to the success of this drug and this is where he cut his teeth. The billion dollars a year it would generate a mere 5 years later, in a previously hostile environment towards prescribing opioids, is testament to his entrepreneurial voracity.

The hostile culture that existed toward opioids previous to the campaign was largely due to the highly-addictive qualities of the drug. The addictive qualities of opioids are long documented and well-known; but were downplayed by the corporation and a narrative was constructed by leading physicians and notable industry figures; that this position was unreasonable and an exaggeration of the facts.

This narrative also included a removal of culpability for Purdue, in true keeping with something Arthur Sackler once reportedly wrote;

“All health problems devolve upon the individual.”

This ethos sounds very familiar.

Straight out the book of big tobacco.

The above video is an iconic moment; the CEOs of big tobacco testifying in a high-profile 1994 congressional hearing, for then to each express the same sentiment:

“I don’t believe Nicotine or our products are addictive.”

It is shocking viewing, almost funny; the brazen way in which they deny cold hard fact. Their I am Spartacus moment is almost applaudable.

Apart from it’s not funny. These well-dressed men in pressed suits, horn rimmed glasses and wavy silver hair represent the darkest, most ruthless and unstirred qualities of global capitalism. That brazen ruthlessness and complete disregard for the facts in sacrifice for the bottom line pangs of everything detestable at the moment and is the staple of corporate capitalism.

These characters are completely interchangeable. You could swap those big tobacco CEOs for the CEO’s of oil giants, car manufacturers, military industrialists or even the Chief Exec of the free world:

“No, I don’t believe that global warming is taking place or industry contributes to it.”
“No, I don’t believe that our bombs are contributing to the death or starvation of Yemenis.”
“No, I don’t believe that white supremacy is a problem or my administration facilitates it.”

These days, one might console themselves with the idea that eventually they got the justice they deserved; big tobacco were reigned in. After years of surmounting evidence, litigation and pressure, 46 states brought legal proceedings against some of the biggest names.

This resulted in a heavy fine; a total of $206,000,000,000 over 25 years.

A jaw dropping figure, surely that’s a real kick in the coffers? In reality, it’s a drop in the ocean: Marlboro, only one of offender Phillip Morris' brands, made $24,000,000,000 last year.

Big tobacco slunk away, its wings clipped and seemingly tamed; they were “dealt with”, publicly and that sank into social consciousness; surely any wrong doing now is down to individual choice?

In reality, the biggest companies continue to make massive profits year on year; also, addiction produces and protects it’s own market—the home-grown consumer-base is safe.

Still, they jumped ship, sought greener pastures—new and fertile global frontiers were presented for conquering. They simply switched their focus.

They put their mind to exportation and not just the product, but the ideas. The same strategies and tactics used domestically were to be applied abroad:

Powerful lobbying associations were created, phoney think tanks promoted, advertising dominated, reputable consultants brought on-board and the facts were hidden or skewed.

Just in 2016 tobacco companies have aggressively lobbied several African governments for restrictions being imposed on them.

It wasn’t just tobacco companies that learned from their mistakes; big pharma did too and it hasn’t cost the Sacklers billions to find a remedy to their situation. Yet.

“The drugs don’t work, they just make you worse.”

The Sacklers are different to other global corporate pharmaceutical institutions, in that they have built the bulk of their multi-billion empire on the back of just two products.

Whilst the likes of global players GSK and Pfizer are still predatory and other companies are no angels; pointing to the example of Billy Kenber’s excellent investigation into rigged internal NHS markets. They are still nowhere near the same sort of company that Purdue are.

GSk and Pfizer continue to push the boundaries in research and experimentation. Purdue seem to be all about the marketing. They lack the slick science fiction aesthetic that the Swiss, Japanese or British companies have. When you picture Purdue, you think Stratton Oakmont, not Tyrell Corporation.

Whilst money is clearly pumped into the public image and their staff are shiny-faced, the online training videos are professional and the colour schemes are neat; it can’t disguise the fact that 1 in 4 American opioid addicts got started on Oxycontin.

It doesn’t hide the fact that they also promoted this product on the basis of evidence that didn’t wholly support the claims they made in their advertisements; that the slow release oxycodone pill lasted only 8 hours and not the 12 they claimed.

In 2007, Purdue and three executives pleaded guilty to federal charges of misbranding and resolved to pay a total $634.5 million. As of 2015, Purdue’s annual revenues still totalled $3 billion.

Medical practitioners and experts in the U.S. believe that this misbranding exacerbated addiction, after as little as 6 hours some users of the drug with chronic pain are reported to have dosed again as they could no longer feel the effects of the drug. This would, for some, result in cyclical prescription addiction.

The warning signs were there as early as 2001, articles chronicled nation-wide recreational abuse of the drug. Internal Purdue memos circulated by big press organisations show that the directors at least took a Laissez-faire attitude and sales management continued to encourage their staff to push the product as insatiably as before.

According to the US government’s National Survey on Drug Use, as many as 7 million people are said to have abused the drug over a 20 year period.

Hundreds of thousands of people have died from prescription abuse, with complex, organised black markets opening up, this has in turn fueled the Heroin trade.

There were a record 64,00 drug overdoses in 2016, an estimated 38,000 of those were opioid related.

This has devastated poor former industrial rust belt communities; already plagued by unemployment, homelessness and crime. There are a number of notable documentaries that shed light on this issue which can offer a better, more authoritative insight, these include; The Oxycontin Express, Oxyana and Heroin(e).

These sorts of figures and realities led to, albeit a bit late, thorough investigative work with national and international exposure by the biggest mainstream household names of American media. This has now created a hostile litigious and even political environment for Purdue in the USA.

Members of congress and other representatives warned the international community about them, by writing to the World Health organization. We'll touch on this in more detail later in the investigation.

Over the last few years a host of states and authorities have pursued legal means to hold Purdue and other corporations to account for their contribution to the epidemic.

This is not unlike what happened with big tobacco; with seemingly bold moves and heavy reparations from authority, in the minds of the people they are being "dealt with", but actually more amounting to something like a slap on the wrist for the corp.

It must be noted that punitive fines such as the ones big pharma and big tobacco have faced are inconsequential when the state support such wide scale abuse through legislation.

Inevitably the result was the same, from right out of the book of big tobacco Purdue shifted its gaze to the international consumer. Enter Mundipharma.

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