Billion in Pharma Riches, Millions Hooked

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Tom Petty, 66, died in October from a drug overdose caused by the mixing of medications involving opioids.

Eighteen months earlier it was a strikingly similar ending for Prince, 57, found alone and unconscious in the elevator of his home, dead from a mixture of opioids.

Authorities, after checking databases set up to monitor who’s receiving prescriptions for controlled substances, found there was a prescription for the opioid painkiller oxycodone written for Prince’s bodyguard on the same day the singer was revived with Narcan from an overdose on his plane, prompting an emergency landing ordered by the same bodyguard onboard.

The prescribing physician disclosed to authorities that he wrote the oxycodone prescription for the bodyguard in order to protect Prince’s privacy.

The overdose on the plane was six days prior to the overdose that killed the singer at his Paisley Park estate and studio complex.

A number of prescriptions pain relievers including Percocet, Percodan, Tylox, and OxyContin all contain oxycodone. However, oxycodone is the only ingredient in the stronger version of the drug: OxyContin.

The demise of Petty and Prince are just two of the high profile drug deaths that received extensive media coverage. Less publicized and more overlooked, but more tragic because of the larger numbers, are the people listed daily in the in the nation’s obituary columns with their passing frequently and obscurely described with the words “died suddenly.”

Petty’s family posted a message on his website: “As a family we recognize this report may spark a further discussion on the opioid crisis and we feel that it is a healthy and necessary discussion and we hope in some way this report can save lives. Many people who overdose begin with a legitimate injury or simply do not understand the potency and deadly nature of these medications.”

A medical examiner’s report showed Petty had traces of multiple opioids in his system when he died, a
week after concluding a nationwide tour. He was found unconscious at his home in Malibu, California in a state of full cardiac arrest.

Petty “suffered from emphysema, knee problems and a fractured hip,” wrote his family on the band’s website. Out of commitment to fans in his 40th anniversary tour, they said, Petty performed 53 concerts with the fractured hip that worsened during the tour and developed into a full break as he increasingly turned to medications to deal with the escalating pain.

More specifically regarding the cause of death, “Petty had multiple drugs – several of which were opioids – in his system when he died, including oxycodone, fentamyl, temazepam, alprazolam, citalopram, acetyl fentanyl, and despropionyl fentanyl, according to the Los Angeles Times,” reported German Lopez, senior reporter at Vox.

“The opioid epidemic goes back to the 1990s, with the release of OxyContin and mass marketing of prescription painkillers,” wrote Lopez.

The widespread marketing of OxyContin was buttressed with campaigns by its producer that minimized the addictive properties of the drug and pushed doctors to reduce their cautiousness regarding painkillers and change their prescribing practices.

“This contributed to the spread of opioid painkiller misuse and addiction, which over time also led to greater use of illicitly produced opioids like heroin and fentanyl,” reported Lopez. “Drug overdose deaths have climbed every year since the late ’90s as a result. In 2016, there were nearly 64,000 drug overdose deaths in the US – an all-time high – and at least two-thirds were linked to opioids.” The early data for 2017 suggests that drug overdose deaths are again higher, according to figures from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

A well-researched and thorough report in The New Yorker, “Empire of Pain: The Sackler family’s ruthless promotion of opioids generated billions of dollars — and millions of addicts,” October 30, 2017, begins with a list of the physical embodiments of the generosity of one of America’s largest philanthropic dynasties: the Sackler Wing of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Sackler Gallery in Washington, D.C., the Sackler Wing at the Louvre, the Sackler professorships and facilities at Harvard, Yale, Columbia, Oxford and a dozen other universities, the Sackler Center for Feminist Art at the Brooklyn Museum, and the Sackler Wing at the Guggenheim.

The Brooklyn-born brothers Arthur, Mortimer, and Raymond Sackler, all physicians, developed the family business, Purdue Pharma – a privately held company that created and extensively marketed OxyContin, a blockbuster prescription painkiller that reportedly generated $35 billion in revenue for Purdue.

Unfortunately, the Sackler galleries and museum wings – highbrow, majestic, sturdy and well-funded –are in much better shape than the Sacklers’ OxyContin consumers.

Castle Medical, specialists in pain management and toxicology testing, reports that globally, on average, it’s estimated that “100,000 people die from OxyContin abuse per year.”


Ralph R. Reiland is Associate Professor Emeritus of Economics at Robert Morris University in Pittsburgh..

Ralph R. Reiland
Phone: 412-527-2100
Email: [email protected]