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Journalist Discusses Opioid Epidemic during CSCG Talk

An award-winning staff writer for The New Yorker, Patrick Radden Keefe told the story he first chronicled in the magazine in October 2017.

The talk in Olin Auditorium centered on the Sackler family, prominent philanthropists who amassed a fortune through the sale of OxyContin. He explained that while the Sacklers are often interviewed and speak openly about their philanthropy, they distance themselves from the company, Purdue Pharma, and the drug that made their fortune.

The controversy behind the company emerged as a result of the drugs that they made and how they carried high potential for abuse by drug abusers and people with a history of addiction, Keefe explained.

The story of OxyContin is a story of a very successful and concerted marketing campaign that made the prescribing of opioids more palatable to the medical community, the writer said, noting that “there was a fear that opioids were very addictive. This was not a new fear.”

Through the granular use of market research, along with paid spoke-doctors using data from research studies funded by the company and expensive trips as incentives, Purdue Pharma deliberately convinced doctors across America that OxyContin was safe, Keefe said.

Keefe said that this was in spite of the Sackler-owned Purdue Pharma’s knowledge of the issues with OxyContin that made it highly addictive. The journalist acknowledged that there are many big pharma companies and federal agencies that may be culpable in the opioid epidemic, however, he focused on the Sackler family due to the legal tenant of the “but for” test: “But for the action, the result would not have happened, and that action was the marketing campaign,” he said.

With the success of OxyContin in the marketplace and a new willingness of doctors to prescribe opioids, other companies soon followed by introducing and mass-marketing opioids of their own. Keefe explained, “The genie was out of the bottle.”

Furthermore, he said, many patients who were now addicted turned to the cheaper and more readily-available heroin, causing an uptake in heroin use in the United States and the increase in smuggling that first led Keefe to this story.

In addition to the lecture, Keefe also spent time with students and faculty in informal conversations earlier in the day.

“This is a really important story for Ursinus students to learn as they prepare to go out into the world and take positions as physicians and pharmaceutical researchers,” said Robert Dawley, a professor of biology and director of the Parlee Center for Science and the Common Good. —By Monique Kelly