America’s opioid crisis made allies of rivals, collaborators of competitors and fools of regulators. It also put profits over people — billions and billions of times.
The Secret’s Out
Now that a federal judge in Ohio has released secret data showing America was flooded with more than 75 billion opioid pills over just six years, a raft of implicated corporations are scrambling to cover their tracks. Thankfully, the secret data will make those tracks nearly impossible to cover.
For instance: How big pharma targeted regions worst hit by the epidemic. How drug manufacturers and pharmaceutical distributors kept on ramping up deliveries even as overdose deaths continued to rise. And how all of the interested companies ignored warnings from the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA).
And oh, what a list of companies implicated in the opioid crisis.
You’ll recognize the names Walmart, CVS and Walgreens. Each of those chains continued to fill pain pill prescriptions despite a chorus of alarm bells. You’ll also recognize the name Johnson & Johnson, the household name that Oklahoma Attorney General Mike Hunter accused of being involved in a “cunning, cynical and deceitful scheme” to put profits over people. You’ve also probably heard of Purdue Pharma, the makers of the insidiously addictive OxyContin.
Less recognizable names include the drug distributor McKesson, whose CEO was the highest paid executive in America at the peak of the opioid crisis, and Keysource Medical, a generic drug wholesaler that also profited handsomely from the opioid epidemic.
Keysource Medical also had the dubious distinction of having a message from one of its sales executives singled out by AG Hunter. To wit:
“Keep ’em comin’! Flyin’ out of there. It’s like people are addicted to these things or something,” read an interoffice message. “Oh, wait, people are…”
Creating the Opioid Crisis
Until recently, Purdue Pharma has taken most of the blame for creating the opioid crisis. After all, the company’s OxyContin was a catalyst. But as AG Hunter’s Johnson & Johnson trial and the Ohio court’s data drop make clear, this opioid crisis wasn’t just created by a couple of rogue companies.
In fact, the responsibility went much wider than anyone ever suspected.
In the first place, Johnson & Johnson’s marketing department set out to steal part of OxyContin’s market with the same high-pressure sales tactics used by Purdue.
At the same time, the company was working in tandem with Purdue to influence medical practice, federal regulators and politicians to promote the mass prescribing of opioids in a way no other country has seen.
In other words, the two companies were competitors, as well as collaborators.
Both made false claims for the safety of narcotic painkillers. They manipulated scientific papers that under-reported the risk of addiction and funded academic studies that hewed their way. They also trained doctors to make opioids the default treatment for pain.
Johnson & Johnson and Purdue Pharma were not alone. In addition to McKesson, Keysource Medical and the nation’s largest pharmacy chains, the Irish firm Mallinckrodt and the British firm Reckitt Benckiser were also heavily in on the opioid action. In fact, the latter just paid $1.4 billion to settle a federal indictment — thus far largest-ever civil settlement.
Expect more big payouts to come. Many more. And of even higher denominations. Expect too to see a large portion of the settlements to be put toward addiction treatment. After all, the pharmaceutical companies created the opioid epidemic, the least they can do is pay for cleaning it up.