Friday Reads: Empire of Pain: The Secret History of the Sackler Dynasty, by Patrick Radden Keefe

Patrick Radden Keefe’s latest book, Empire of Pain, released on April 12, 2021, is a timely account of three generations of the Sackler family and the role they’ve played in the ongoing opioid crisis. It starts out as a classic American rags-to-riches story–three entrepreneurial brothers, born to poor immigrant parents in Brooklyn in the early 20th century, who succeed beyond their wildest dreams, winding up as billionaire philanthropists. It also tells a darker tale of corporate greed, coupled with personal hubris, leading to devastating social consequences.

Most of us know a bit about the Sacklers, due to media coverage of the multiple lawsuits filed against their privately owned company, Purdue Pharma, which manufactures and markets OxyContin. Purdue Pharma introduced this highly addictive extended-release painkiller to the market in 1996, and it was a game changer. Indeed, many view its arrival on the scene as the most significant precipitating event leading to the now-decades-long opioid epidemic.

If you want to know more, Keefe’s extensively researched book provides compelling evidence of why this family and their pharmaceutical company are viewed as culpable. And sadly, it feels like a too-familiar narrative:

  • There’s the FDA employee who, shortly after overseeing approval of OxyContin, wound up accepting a well-paid position with Purdue Pharma.
  • There’s the misleading marketing strategy of touting OxyContin as less addictive and less prone to abuse because of its time-release coating, even though company insiders knew from monitoring online discussion groups that users were crushing and chewing the drug to get a bigger “hit.”
  • There’s the sales force that continued to call on and sell to doctors who were clearly running pill mills, because of unending pressure to increase revenue.
  • And finally, there is the pathological refusal of family members to accept any responsibility for the problems that proliferated in conjunction with OxyContin sales. They seemed to view reports of OxyContin-related addiction and overdose deaths as PR problems that unfairly sullied the reputation of Purdue’s prized product, not as human tragedies: Addicts were the victimizers and Purdue Pharma and the Sacklers were the victims.

If you’re a fan of corporate exposes, this book will be right down your alley. It would also be a good companion read if you are watching the limited series Dopesick, now streaming on Hulu.

Keefe, Patrick Radden. Empire of Pain: The Secret History of the Sackler Dynasty. New York: Doubleday, 2021.

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