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How I Exposed the Biggest Pharma Scandal of Our Lifetime Barry Meier

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Purdue Pharma boss Richard Sackler (back row, second from left, with other members of the Sackler family) still claims he was unaware of his company’s crimes. (Photo illustration by The Free Press)

When I walked into the diner my source was already there, sitting in a booth. It was late summer of 2001 and, earlier that year, I had started writing articles for The New York Times about the growing abuse of a then little-known painkiller, OxyContin. Its maker, Purdue Pharma, was promoting the powerful narcotic to doctors as a “wonder” drug that was far safer from abuse and addiction than other pain pills.

My involvement in the story started simply. An editor asked me to check out a tip that OxyContin, despite its manufacturer’s claims, was finding its way onto the streets of small towns throughout Appalachia. At the time, I knew nothing about prescription narcotics, or “opioids,” addiction, or Purdue’s owners, the wealthy, secretive Sackler family. I had no idea I soon would become an eyewitness to the biggest prescription drug scandal of our lifetime or be the first national reporter to shine a spotlight on it.

One day, I got a call from a Purdue insider who wanted to meet. We agreed to get together at a diner, located about midway between New York and Stamford, Connecticut, where Purdue was based. My source was nervous but dismayed by what Purdue was doing. Then, I was given a lined sheet of notebook paper. It had the word Toppers handwritten on it. 

Purdue used the term, I was told, to identify its top-selling sales reps—the ones paid the biggest bonuses and awarded free vacations. There was a list of ten names, the geographic territories those reps covered, and the dollar amount of OxyContin they had sold in the previous three months. My source then explained a secret Purdue was guarding: every one of those locations contained thriving “pill mills” where doctors prescribed OxyContin for cash, often to people pretending to be patients in pain.

The area serviced by Purdue’s leading “topper” was Myrtle Beach, South Carolina, and when I got back to the Times, I did some research. It turned out that the DEA had just shut down one pill mill there operating as a pain clinic. When I went to Purdue’s headquarters, its three top executives all claimed to me in an interview they didn’t know anything unusual was happening in Myrtle Beach. But thanks to my source, I knew that wasn’t true.

I spent several months doing more reporting and traveled to Myrtle Beach. There, shop owners in the same strip mall as the pain clinic described how hundreds of cars regularly waited in the parking lot for its doors to open. I interviewed patients at the clinic, including some now cut off from medication, and found that five people prescribed OxyContin there had died by overdose. Local pharmacists also told me how they repeatedly warned Purdue officials about what was happening and how those complaints were ignored.

In late 2001, after that trip, I confronted Purdue executives with what I had found and asked them why they hadn’t responded to the situation in Myrtle Beach when their own sales data was flashing red. The company downplayed the chaos and a Purdue spokesman claimed, providing no evidence, that the huge demand for OxyContin in Myrtle Beach was coming from local retirees dealing with arthritis pain. 

The OxyContin story became so big that in 2003, I published a book, Pain Killer: An Empire of Deceit and the Origin of America’s Opioid Epidemic, about the unfolding catastrophe we now call the opioid epidemic. Now, twenty years later, it is the basis of a Netflix series that began airing this month. My book documents how Purdue turned OxyContin, a drug valuable for treating severe pain caused by cancer or chronic health issues, into a billion-dollar blockbuster by launching the biggest-ever pharmaceutical marketing campaign for a powerful and potentially addictive narcotic.

Matthew Broderick stars as Richard Sackler in the Netflix hit Painkiller, which began airing this month. (Keri Anderson via Netflix)

It was built on the lie, pushed by Purdue’s sales team, that OxyContin’s special formulation made it safe to use for back pain, dental pain, and other common problems. In fact, a single tablet of OxyContin contained up to sixteen times the amount of oxycodone, a powerful narcotic, than found in traditional painkillers. 

Purdue’s promotional strategies included falsely claiming to well-meaning doctors that scientific studies showed the risk of patient addiction from OxyContin was “less than one percent.” Such studies didn’t exist, but Purdue and its medical allies engaged in an ideological “War on Pain” by cherry-picking data from clinical trials and distorting their findings. The company also used its money to buy influence, by hiring physicians to promote OxyContin, giving money to law enforcement organizations, and making contributions to professional medical groups.

A U.S. attorney in Maine who first sounded the alarm in that state soon went on Purdue’s payroll, as did the FDA official who, at the company’s urging, approved the specious labeling claim that OxyContin’s time-release formula might reduce its potential to be abused. While researching Pain Killer, I discovered the founder of the Sackler dynasty, Dr. Arthur Sackler, developed many of these techniques in the 1950s when he pioneered the prescription drug advertising industry.

I hoped Pain Killer, along with my reporting, would lead to national action from doctors, politicians, and government officials. But for years, the toll of overdose deaths involving prescription opioids continued to mount. Over the past two decades, that figure has exceeded 280,000 Americans. (Most overdose deaths today involve counterfeit fentanyl.)

My work did get plenty of attention from Purdue, which from the beginning dispatched lawyers and paid mouthpieces to attack me. From the start, Times editors had fortunately waved them away. But then Purdue’s executives found a sympathetic ear at the paper: its brand-new “public editor,” Daniel Okrent. 

In 2003, the Times was embroiled in several scandals involving fabricated or inaccurate reporting, and Okrent, a magazine and book writer, was appointed to address newsroom standards. That November, the month after Pain Killer came out, Rush Limbaugh, the late radio personality, disclosed he was addicted to opioids. I was promoting my new book, so I got permission to write an article for the Times about the science of pain treatment and addiction. Purdue’s name appeared only in the eleventh paragraph, and to avoid any conflict of interest, my book was never mentioned.

I correctly anticipated that Purdue executives would attack me. They went to Okrent to complain that I was using the paper to sell my book. In his debut column, Okrent took their side. Apparatchiks at the Times didn’t have the stomach to blow off Okrent, his first time out of the box. After that, I was barred for a time from writing about Purdue, the opioid crisis, and related topics. (Years later, Okrent, whose term as public editor was set for 18 months, told Patrick Radden Keefe for his book, Empire of Pain, that he had often wondered if he “made a mistake.” He described me as being “batshit”—a fair description, since, as I told Keefe, I believed Okrent had been “played for a chump.”) 

I soon learned why Purdue was so desperate to get me off their case. At the same time its executives were complaining to Okrent, federal prosecutors were using my reporting as a road map for a criminal investigation into Purdue. By 2007, my ban was over, and the Justice Department’s inquiry had quietly culminated in charges against Purdue and those executives for misleading doctors and patients about the dangers of OxyContin.

An official with the United States Attorney’s office in Roanoke, Virginia, alerted me about the development before it was publicly announced. The Purdue executives planned to fly on a corporate jet into Abingdon, Virginia, enter their pleas in a courthouse, and fly back to Stamford, Connecticut. Their lawyers asked the U.S. attorney in Roanoke, John Brownlee, not to alert the media. He made one exception: me.

On a May evening in 2007, I had dinner with Brownlee at a Mexican restaurant. He showed me the draft version of a press release his office planned to issue the next day after the executives entered their pleas. In it, he personally thanked me for my work both at the Times and in Pain Killer. I felt vindicated but asked him to delete those sentences.

The Justice Department hailed the case as a victory. It wasn’t. Prosecutors in Virginia wanted to charge the Purdue executives with felonies that carried prison sentences. But Purdue and the men hired the most politically connected lawyers money could buy: Rudolph Giuliani, who needs no introduction; Mary Jo White, who at the time was a former U.S. attorney then in private practice; and Howard Shapiro, the former chief counsel of the FBI. Political appointees in the Bush administration Justice Department caved and forced the Virginia prosecutors to negotiate a deal under which the company’s three men—its president, top lawyer, and former chief medical officer—pleaded guilty to a misdemeanor that held them solely liable for being Purdue Pharma’s “responsible” executives while the company was committing crimes, but did not personally charge them with wrongdoing. 

Almost a decade passed before I wrote another big Times story about Purdue and the Sacklers. Then, around 2017, a source gave me a secret Justice Department prosecution memo that brought me back into the OxyContin saga. It was filled with evidence prosecutors planned to present when seeking felony indictments against the Purdue executives back in 2007, including secret company emails and grand jury testimony. But because the case never went to trial, this explosive memo had been buried.

The evidence gathered by prosecutors pointed to the depth of Purdue’s crimes and deceit. They found that almost immediately after OxyContin’s introduction in 1996, doctors began telling company sales reps that the drug had a high “street value” and that users were crushing tablets and snorting the powder. And by 1999, according to prosecutors, Purdue executives were getting regular reports about pharmacy break-ins and other crimes related to OxyContin, including the arrests of doctors for illegally prescribing it. “I feel like we have a credibility problem with our product,” one company sales rep wrote Purdue executives in 1999. 

The memo also contained emails sent by top Purdue executives to Richard Sackler, who was the company’s president during the boom years of OxyContin sales, and other Sackler family members, about the abuse of the drug and another company opioid. My reporting for the Times was also cited in it.

I wrote a front-page article for the Times about the memo, which became the subject of a Times television documentary. Meanwhile, state attorneys general were bringing a new wave of lawsuits against Purdue and, for the first time, individual members of the Sackler family. 

For decades, the Sacklers had successfully shielded themselves from scrutiny by hiding behind layers of lawyers, lobbyists, and hired mouthpieces. But one by one, their allies, enablers, and supporters would slip away. 

In 2017, a celebrated photographer, Nan Goldin, started a campaign that convinced some museums to strip the family’s name from their walls (the Sacklers were major collectors and art philanthropists). New books appeared about the Sacklers and the opioid epidemic, ones in which I had the curious experience of seeing myself depicted as a character in the story.

Around the time I retired from the Times in 2017, two screenwriters, Micah Fitzerman-Blue and Noah Harpster, approached me about turning my book into a television series. Earlier this month, Painkiller, a six-part dramatic series about the Sacklers and the origins of the opioid epidemic based on my book and the work of The New Yorker’s Patrick Radden Keefe, began streaming on Netflix. (A new paperback edition of Pain Killer is also out.)

On the same day the Netflix show started airing, the Supreme Court made a surprise decision about a long, ongoing bankruptcy proceeding involving Purdue Pharma. The court froze a deal under which the Sacklers would contribute $6 billion to a fund for OxyContin victims, and in return, get lifetime protection against being personally named in further lawsuits. The Biden administration has taken the position that allowing the deal to go forward will create a way for the rich to use the bankruptcy system to buy their way out of liability. The Court will hear the case later this year.

As for Sacklers, they have never been charged with any crimes. Richard Sackler and other family members involved with Purdue Pharma insist they did nothing wrong and knew nothing about the crimes committed by their company. They have cast their $6 billion settlement agreement as an act of generosity. I have long believed, however, that if the Justice Department had the guts in 2007 to put the Purdue executives on trial, then the arc of the opioid epidemic might have bent in the right direction.

In the Netflix show there is some fictionalizing of how things unfolded. For one, Arthur Sackler, the patriarch of the Sackler family, appears as a character, despite the fact he was long dead before the first tablet of OxyContin was sold. In the series, Arthur, the advertising huckster who built the Sackler name and fortune, is a ghost advising his nephew, Richard Sackler, as he oversees another chapter of the family’s history: the transformation of the Sacklers into public pariahs.

Back in 1996, Richard Sackler proclaimed that “the launch of OxyContin will be followed by a blizzard of prescriptions that will bury the competition.” It did that. It also started a blizzard of chaos and despair that has touched millions of lives. 

Barry Meier is the author of Pain Killer: An Empire of Deceit and the Origin of America’s Opioid Epidemic. Read Maya Sulkin’s Free Press piece “America’s Love Affair with Adderall” here.

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Your Constitutional Right To Zyn Kiran Sampath

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Photo illustration by The Free Press

According to Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer, they are a “sinister new threat to the health of young Americans.” Vox says they explain “the new ethos of conservative young men.” Business Insider frets that its users belong to “a subculture on the right that doesn’t just tolerate nicotine use, but venerates it.” 

A new front has opened up in the culture war, and the fight is over inch-long nicotine pouches called Zyns. The product was developed as a cleaner, healthier alternative to “Snus”—moist tobacco pouches tucked inside the gums. Zyn pouches offer all the nicotine without the sticky mess. In other words, Zyns are to Snus what Juuls are to cigarettes—and the latest wave in the push for ever more refined, automatic, and hassle-free nicotine delivery.

And they are popular. Nicotine pouches debuted in the U.S. in 2016 and sales grew by over 540 percent between August 2019 to March 2022. Brands like On! and Velo have played their part, but Zyn, the brand born in Sweden in 2014 and acquired by the tobacco behemoth Philip Morris in 2022, commands 75 percent of the market share as of 2023.

“Part of the appeal is the name.” says Wilson Nesbit, an economics student at Yale University. “It’s short. It’s sweet. And you can put it in a lot of words.” 

In other words, it’s memeable. “Monica Lezynsky,” Nesbit offers. “Zyn-Manuel Miranda. Qui-Gon Zyn.”

Nesbit lives on Lynwood Place, a small street just off Yale’s campus in New Haven, Connecticut. Lynwood is home to two churches, three fraternities, two secret societies, one Chabad house, and a boatload of nicotine. Hence the block’s new nickname, Zynwood. 

“It’s been known as Zynwood for two years,” says Nesbit, who lives with six boys in a house on the street. “The guys who lived here before us had a tent with the Zyn brand stamped across it.” More recently, he underwent an artistic project to solidify the community’s identity, collecting the empty Zyn tins from throughout the neighborhood—277 of them—and spelling out ZYNWOOD on the wall of their living room. 

The Zynwood sign. (Photo courtesy of Wilson Nesbit)

But Zyns aren’t just for college kids. Twentysomethings in corporate jobs now see them as a sophisticated way to get a nicotine hit.

“Vapes are unprofessional,” Andrew Schuler, a consultant at PricewaterhouseCoopers, former vaper, and Zyn user, tells me. “We need nicotine to cope with our jobs because they are extremely stressful,” says Schuler, who goes through three to four pouches a day. “But you’re not going to rip a clunky-looking, purple-colored vape at your desk.”

It’s also about optimization, he said. “Smoking a cigarette requires a break.”

“The guy who used to work at the desk next to me used to take meetings with a Zyn in his cheek,” says one friend, a former Goldman Sachs banker. 

For some, nicotine delivered via Zyns isn’t a nasty addiction, but something of a macho life hack. Arch-techbro Peter Thiel claims nicotine raises your IQ 10 points, while Tucker Carlson (Carlzyn?) proclaimed on Theo Von’s podcast, “Zyn is a powerful work enhancer” as well as “a man enhancer.” (Last December, the Nelk Boys podcasters gifted Carlson the world’s largest Zyn, delivered via helicopter.) But it isn’t neccessarily just right-wingers who use Zyn: a recent picture of Squad member Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez showed a Zyn pack-shaped bulge in her white jeans. 

Tucker Carl-zyn with the world’s largest Zyn, and a regular-sized packet for scale. (Image via X)

In January, Chuck Schumer called for a crackdown on Zyns. “Amid federal action against e-cigs and their grip on young people, a quiet and dangerous alternative has emerged and it is called Zyn,” Schumer said, warning that Zyns “lock their sights on teens and use social media to hook them.”

As part of his crackdown, Schumer wants to investigate how Phillip Morris has marketed Zyn, and whether the firm has targeted minors. In 2023, Juul agreed to pay $462 million to settle lawsuits into the marketing of vaping products to children. But, rather than investing in social media influencers or extensive advertising campaigns, Zyn has relied on organic viral traction in the U.S. 

A spokesman for Zyn says the company’s marketing practices “are focused on preventing underage access and set the benchmark for the industry.” 

But even Nesbit says Schumer is right to worry about young people getting hooked on the pouch. “It’s an easy introduction for youths that haven’t used nicotine,” he told me over the phone from Zynwood. “Mitigating youth usage should be a top priority, but finding the right approach is another story.” 

Others see ingesting Zyns as a constitutional right, and Schumer as an enemy of freedom. As Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene recently exclaimed on X about his crackdown : “This calls for a Zynsurrection!”

Kiran Sampath is a researcher and reporter. Read her last piece about the temple in New Jersey that took 12 years and $96 million to build.

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South Korea Is Running Out of Kids. Is This America’s Future? Anna Louie Sussman

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In January, more than 150 schools in South Korea had no new first graders. (Photo by Busà Photography via Getty Images)

If you’ve been on TikTok in the last few weeks, you might have seen that American women are talking about 4B. The South Korean feminist movement gets its name from the “Four Nos” its adherents commit to: no dating, no sex, no marriage, no childbirth. In short, 4B, which began around 2019, encourages women to actively avoid men as much as possible. That it’s now trending in the U.S. raises an uncomfortable question: Are our gender politics starting to look like Korea’s? And if so, will the demographic consequences be as extreme?

Right now, South Korea is running out of kids. Last week, it was reported that the Education Ministry plans to reduce the number of teacher training places, citing the precipitous decline in students, which is so extreme that in January of this year more than 150 schools across the nation had no new first graders. Six years ago, the average number of children a South Korean woman had in her lifetime was 0.92, a figure rarely seen outside wartime; since then, it’s fallen all the way to 0.78, with a projection of 0.65 in 2025. In Seoul, the capital, it’s already at 0.59

When I visited Seoul in 2022 to report on why Koreans aren’t having babies, I often found myself wondering: Could this happen in America? Our nation’s fertility, though significantly below the replacement rate of 2.1, is currently higher, at 1.8. But, in the course of dozens of conversations with Koreans of reproductive age, I heard more extreme versions of sentiments I’d started to observe at home. 

Today, Americans who want a good old-fashioned heterosexual relationship struggle to find someone who shares their values. Analysis has shown a gigantic mismatch in the nation’s dating pool: for each single liberal woman, there exist 0.6 single liberal young men. Conservative young men have it even worse, with just 0.5 single conservative young women available to choose from. At the end of last year, the pollster Dan Cox found that this divide is particularly intense among American members of Gen Z, whose oldest members are now 27, the average age of a first-time mother in 2022. 

In Gen Z, Cox showed, women and men are much further apart on fundamental questions of gender equality than the generation before them: whereas 52 percent of millennial men say they’re feminists, compared to 54 percent of women, the equivalent figures for Gen Z are 43 percent and 61 percent. In 2019, a third of adult men under 30 said they face discrimination based on their sex; only five years later, that number has increased to almost half.

Recent data suggest this gender divide is global—and growing. In January, a Financial Times report showed the wide, and widening, divergence in political values between young women and men. This is true in South Korea and the U.S. but also in China, Germany, and the UK.

Americans haven’t given up on having a family to the extent that South Koreans have. In 2023, about 35 percent of Koreans said they don’t think having children after marriage is necessary, a figure that rose to more than 57 percent among 19- to 24-year-olds. By contrast, a recent Gallup poll found that the vast majority of Americans under 30 “either already have children (21 percent) or hope to someday (63 percent).” 

But young American women haven’t just been making TikToks about 4B out of curiosity—an increasing number are genuinely swearing off male partners, with the hashtag #celibacyjourney racking up tens of millions of views. A New York Times op-ed published in February described going “boysober” as “this year’s hottest mental health craze.” Meanwhile, men who identify as “involuntarily celibate” are retreating to online echo chambers that, one 2022 study suggested, now harbor eight times as many instances of degrading language toward women than they did in 2016. In the twelve months after December 2022, self-described misogynist Andrew Tate’s following on X increased from 3 million to 8.5 million.

Conservative politicians across the globe are capitalizing on these divides. Not long before I arrived in Korea, the president Yoon Suk-yeol had coasted into office in May 2022 on a wave of anti-feminist campaign promises, in what multiple observers described as an “incel election.” For the first time, young men describing themselves as anti-feminist were seen as an influential voting bloc, with Yoon promising to abolish the nation’s Ministry of Gender Equality and Family. (He has not yet succeeded.)

In the U.S., the Republicans also appear to be aggressively courting the male vote. Since the fall of Roe, the Republican Party has become actively hostile to women’s reproductive rights, pushing female voters left. And some of the party’s most influential members are now stoking a war between men and women.

In a breathtakingly offensive comment last January, Florida congressman Matt Gaetz called for the Republican Party to all but forget about female voters, saying that “For every Karen we lose, there’s a Julio and a Jamal ready to sign up for the MAGA movement.” Fox News host Jesse Watters has been even more explicit in singling out liberal single women as the GOP’s nemesis, alighting, somehow, on matrimony as an electoral strategy. 

“Single women are breaking for Democrats by 30 points,” he said after the 2022 midterms. “We need these ladies to get married,” he warned, following up with an order: “Guys, go put a ring on it.” 

And yet a recent poll found that 40 percent of Republicans said they don’t believe marital rape should definitely or probably be prosecuted, suggesting the party’s not overflowing with eligible bachelors. 

All signs point to an ever-widening rift between the sexes. And if women and men become sworn enemies, America is going to start running out of kids, too.

Anna Louie Sussman is a journalist covering gender, economics, and reproduction. She is a 2024 Alicia Patterson Fellow

For more on America’s gender divide, read Rikki Schlott’s piece, “When It Comes to Sex, My Generation Is Screwed,” and become a Free Press subscriber today:

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April 15, 2024 Garamond

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