A dynasty in the midst of an opioid epidemic: The true story behind Netflix’s Painkiller.

A dynasty in the midst of an opioid epidemic: The true story behind Netflix's Painkiller.

Netflix Painkiller is the latest true crime series to make audiences cringe.

The limited series explores the causes and consequences of America’s opioid epidemic in this dramatized retelling starring Uzo Aduba and Matthew Broderick.

The six episode series is based on the book Pain Killer by Barry Meier, along with work by Patrick Radden Keefe New Yorkers article ‘The Family That Builds an Empire of Pain’ and its follow-up book, Pain Killer: The Empire of Fraud and the Origins of the American Opioid Epidemic.

Watch the Painkiller trailer here. The post continues after the video.

Keefe’s work (and the show) is primarily focused on the rise of OxyContin – a drug manufactured by the Purdue Pharma company, which is owned by the extremely wealthy Sackler family.

And while some of the “micro” storylines in the series are fictional, the powerful real-life stories of people who have lost loved ones to opioid addiction act as a stark reminder that the epidemic, and its effects, are very real.

Who is the Sackler family?

The Sackler family is one of the wealthiest families in the US, with an estimated collective worth of around $11 billion.

Purdue Pharmacy was originally founded in 1892 by John Purdue Gray and George Frederick Bingham, before being bought by the doctor and wealthy Raymond brothers Arthur and Mortimer Sackler in 1952.

Raymond’s son, Richard Sackler, started working for Purdue in 1971 and by 1999, he had become president.

Richard became head of research and development as Purdue established direction as head of marketing. He was an integral part of the development of OxyContin, pushing for the drug for FDA approval in 1995, along with selling the unsubstantiated narrative that OxyContin is less addictive than other painkillers.

The emergence of OxyCotin.

The new Netflix series tells the tragic story of the ongoing opioid crisis – something many have associated with the marketing and promotion of the drug OxyContin by the company Purdue Pharma in 1996.

Over the last two decades, it is estimated that more than 300,000 people have died from overdoses involving prescription opioids like OxyContin – and a study by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in the US found that in 2021 alone, more than 75 percent of nearly 107,000 deaths were from drug overdoses involving opioids.

“OxyContin is a drug that has valuable medical uses,” documentarian and series consultant Alex Gibney tells Netflix’s tum during production.

“But when it is marketed too broadly, regardless of the dangers, it is prescribed inappropriately and too broadly, leading to massive addiction. It spilled over and over again in communities across North America.

Purdue – then owned by the ultra-wealthy Sackler dynasty – reportedly spent around $200 million in 2001 alone on the marketing and promotion of OxyContin. The drug contains oxycodone: an opioid with very high addictive potential. (Opioids are a class of drugs that includes not only a range of drugs designed to reduce pain but also the illegal drug heroin.)

Despite this fact, OxyContin is marketed as much less addictive than other opioid drugs. When the drug first became available, the drug’s official label stated: “Delayed absorption, as provided by OxyContin tablets, is believed to reduce drug abuse liability.”

Partly due to the promotional efforts of Sackler’s Purdue, sales of OxyContin rocketed from $44 million (316,000 prescriptions) in 1996 to combined sales of nearly $3 billion (over 14 million prescriptions) in 2001 and 2002.

Here it is Painkiller the story begins to take flight, as questions start to arise about Purdue and the mysterious Sackler family at the helm of the company.

Matthew Broderick as Richard Sackler in Painkiller. Image: Netflix.

Pain Killer writer Barry Meier told Netflix, “It’s very odd because the sales rep for [Purdue] companies are telling doctors and pharmacists that these new drugs are less prone to abuse than competing painkillers,” he said.

“No one, not even people in the drug industry, knows much about Purdue or the family that owns it, the Sacklers.”

The Netflix series features testimonies from families who have lost loved ones to OxyContin addiction. Fictional character from Glen Kryger, played by Friday Night Light’ Taylor Kitsch, represents the many people who become addicted to OxyContin after being prescribed pain medication.

Reveal the truth.

In 2010, investigative journalist Patrick Radden Keefe began investigating drug cartels in Mexico, which raised wider concerns about a major opioid and pharmaceutical crisis. “I noticed that in 2010, the Sinaloa Cartel started shipping more heroin across the border into the United States,” he tells Netflix.

“Why are they suddenly supplying more heroin? The answer turned out to be the opioid crisis. There’s a generation of Americans who started taking heroin after this, which was prescription painkillers like OxyContin.”

Taking inspiration from Meier’s book, Keefe took aim at the Sacklers in 2017 New Yorkers article. “Not that no one else is to blame for the opioid crisis […] but I think they play a special role,” he said.

“I wanted to take a close look at these very wealthy American dynasties, and try to find out how much moral responsibility they have for this terrible public health crisis that has killed so many people.”

What happened to Purdue Pharmacy and Sacklers?

The Department of Justice first filed criminal charges against Sackler’s Purdue and three top executives in 2007, but those charges do not include members of the Sackler family.

In 2007, Purdue pleaded guilty to federal crimes related to fraudulent marketing that misled regulators, doctors, and patients and underestimated the risk of addiction to OxyContin.

Later in 2020, Purdue pleaded guilty to bribing doctors to prescribe OxyContin, lying about the risks of addiction, and defrauding the US government.

Purdue Pharma filed for bankruptcy in 2019. In September 2021, the company dissolved with a federal judge ordering the Sacklers to pay $4.5 billion in exchange for the family receiving legal protection.

The settlement was initially scrapped before being increased to $6 billion in 2022.

On the day Painkillers released earlier this month, the Supreme Court suspended the settlement.

To this day, the Sackler family has never been criminally charged in connection with OxyContin. Richard Sackler has always maintained that his family played no part in America’s opioid crisis.

Sackler is now 78 years old, and he lives in a $1.7 million home in Florida. The ruling patriarch of the Sackler dynasty is reportedly worth $1.1 billion.

Featured image: Netflix.

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