Junk Journalism: the Oxy saga

SEVEN DAYS OF HEROIN cries the headline THIS IS WHAT AN EPIDEMIC LOOKS LIKE

“Their bones look as if they might poke through their skin. Their eyes are sunken, their hair a tangled mess. Some are unsteady on their feet. Others scratch at sores on their arms. ”

“There’s a 70-year-old Army veteran who stashed a bag of syringes in a basement crawl space. A Taylor Mill woman who tried to hide needles in her vagina after shooting up.”

“Caller: ‘Hello! Yes, please, sir, my brother and his friend overdosed in my car. I picked them up at McDonald’s and they overdosed in my car.'”

“She describes waking up in an abandoned building one morning to find her 25-year-old daughter at her side, cold and dead.”

To create Seven Days of Heroin the Enquirer sent “more than 60 reporters, photographers and videographers” into Cincinnati and the surrounding suburbs to chronicle a week in the life of what it calls “the region’s greatest health crisis” — heroin addiction.

The feature has the trappings of conventional news: dates, names, statistics, and quotes. It contains the characters we expect in drug stories: good cops, benevolent judges, strung-out hookers, homeless people, Mexican drug couriers (except the guy they chase down is clean. Inconvenient), single mothers, bereaved mothers.

It also has OD’ing bodies everywhere. Collapsing in grocery store restrooms, parks, apartments, libraries, and cars like members of a zombie suicide.

As I read it the first time a creep-feeling ran beneath my skin, that low hum of something wrong. I read it again, looking for what I missed. What I missed wasn’t there. Nothing about why these people lost the will to live their lives. Not a word about what amalgam of loss, despair and hopelessness distills the world to the point of a needle. No discussion of how this reality came to be.

***

You will not read the following words in Seven Days of Heroin: “prescription opioid” or “OxyContin”. This is significant. In 2015 The New England Journal of Medicine reported:

79.5% of new heroin initiates… reported that their initial drug was a prescription opioid…
heroin use by patients… nearly doubled after the introduction of abuse-deterrent OxyContin.

This is not an innocent omission. The Cincinnati Enquirer betrays itself with its sole use of the word “pharmaceutical”:

“The taxpayers are paying for this crisis, but they didn’t create this crisis.” –
Clermont County Commissioner David Painter, announcing a lawsuit that claims wholesale pharmaceutical distributors fueled the heroin epidemic.

The Enquirer writers know about the role of the pharmaceutical companies but don’t tell. This is a political choice, in the Orwellian sense. Parading addiction without giving its context implies the so-called heroin epidemic is a natural disaster, like a hurricane or flood. It shifts the blame for social disruption and familial breakdown onto the fragile shoulders of the addicts.

The Enquirer refuses to analyse the origins of the heroin crisis. If it did, the illusion of randomness and personal fallibility melts. Something solid emerges. Let’s call it a conspiracy, because that’s what it is: A secret plan by a group to do something unlawful or harmful.”

Who are the conspirators? Pharmaceutical companies. Like all dealers, they make money pushing product. But their corner boys wear white coats. They created the heroin epidemic. That’s not my opinion. That is peer-reviewed academic research.

“Among new initiates to illicit drug use in 2005, a total of 2.1 million reported prescription opioids as the first drug they had tried... almost equal to the number of new cigarette smokers (2.3 million).” American Journal of Public Health, 2005

“Prescription opioid misuse was facilitated by easy access to opioids via participant’s own prescription, family, or friends, and occurred earlier than misuse of other illicit drugs, such as heroin.” International Journal of Drug Policy, 2012.

These are just two of many studies, conducted across more than a decade, that show that addicts typically try heroin only after getting hooked on prescription opioids.

In 2012, American doctors wrote over 282 million prescriptions for opioid painkillers like OxyContin, Vicodin and Percocet. For an adult population of 240 million.

The tsunami of human misery didn’t rise from the sea. America’s heartland didn’t wake up on day to a shower of needles from the clear blue sky. Doctors, those loyal corner boys, dispensed a deluge of addiction.

Why? Because pharmaceutical companies — the dealers — made it happen.

***

The Philip Morris (or, if you prefer, Avon Barksdale) of this story is Purdue Pharma. Purdue makes OxyContin, a slow-release oxycodene pill it brought to market in 1996. By 2004, OxyContin was the most-abused drug in America. And it was making one family very, very, very rich.

Purdue was purchased by the Sackler brothers, Mortimer, Arthur and Raymond (all physicians) in the 1950s. It is still wholly-owned by the family, one of the 20 richest clans in America. Their net worth is in the neighbourhood of $13 billion. They donated money to build the Serpentine Sackler Gallery in London, the Sackler Gallery at the Smithsonian Museum, and the Sackler School of Medicine at Tel Aviv University. They give to the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Guggenheim, the Tate, the Louvre, to Harvard, Oxford, Columbia and the University of Edinburgh.

Where did the money come from? OxyContin, which has generated an estimated $35 billion in sales thanks to relentless marketing. Here are a few key details from an academic report published in the American Journal of Public Health in 2009.

  • Purdue spent $200 million to market and promote OxyContin in 2001 alone.
  • It gave more than 5000 physicians, pharmacists, and nurses at all-expenses-paid trips to “pain-management conferences” in Florida, California and Arizona.
  • Purdue identified and targeted physicians who were the highest prescribers of opioids
  • Its internal sales team went from 318 reps in 1996 to to 671 in 2000.
  • Purdue filled over 30,000 free “sample” Oxy prescriptions in the drugs first years on the market.
  • It claimed OxyContin had a “less than one percent” risk of causing addiction.
  • Purdue was fined $634 million after pleading guilty to criminal charges of misbranding OxyContin by claiming that it was less addictive and less subject to abuse than other opioids.
  • It was particularly successful marketing to West Virginia, eastern Kentucky, and Alabama. Prescription rates there were 5 to 6 times the national average.
  • In eastern Kentucky from 1995 to 2001, there was a 500% increase in the number of patients entering methadone treatment programs, about 75% of whom were OxyContin dependent

***

These facts skim the surface of a deep, dark, distressing story, but they’re enough to get us on track. Seven Days of Heroin is junk journalism, a deliberate, shoddy attempt to shove blame for a public health crisis onto its victims.

Why? Because America values profit more than equality and corporate privilege more than human life. So it exculpates billionaire criminals and destroys their victims. We are accustomed to seeing drug addicts shuffle into court. If justice were done, Purdue Pharma and its medical minions would be on the dock instead.

****

Not all media are suck-ups. In 2016 the LA Times published multiple reports based on an in-depth investigation into OxyContin. Read it.

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