In 2004, Purdue Pharma was facing a threat to sales of its blockbuster opioid painkiller OxyContin, which were approaching $2 billion a year. With abuse of the drug on the rise, prosecutors were bringing criminal charges against some doctors for prescribing massive amounts of OxyContin.
That October, an essay ran across the top of The New York Times’ health section under the headline “Doctors Behind Bars: Treating Pain is Now Risky Business.” Its author, Sally Satel, a psychiatrist, argued that law enforcement was overzealous, and that some patients needed large doses of opioids to relieve pain. She described an unnamed colleague who had run a pain service at a university medical center and had a patient who could only get out of bed by taking “staggering” levels of oxycodone, the active ingredient in OxyContin. She also cited a study published in a medical journal showing that OxyContin is rarely the only drug found in autopsies of oxycodone-related deaths.
“When you scratch the surface of someone who is addicted to painkillers, you usually find a seasoned drug abuser with a previous habit involving pills, alcohol, heroin or cocaine,” Satel wrote.
Satel offers an interesting counter-narrative on the contributions of prescription opioids to the opioid crisis.
So . . . where’s she coming from?
Purdue’s hidden relationships with Satel and AEI illustrate how the company and its public relations consultants aggressively countered criticism that its prized painkiller helped cause the opioid epidemic.
It turns out that the think tank Satel works for received more than $800,000 over the years from Purdue Pharma. Now, the American Enterprise Institute’s mission is to promote free enterprise. So, defending a corporation from government action probably does not require any bribery.
However, there’s more than just a simple donation because of a convergence of philosophical interests:
- Satel had quoted an unnamed unnamed doctor in her piece. That doctor turns out to be a Purdue employee.
- She cited a study funded and written by Purdue.
- She sent a draft of the article to Purdue’s lobbyist for review.
- And, of course, none of this was disclosed.
Was it just AEI and Satel?
Purdue funded think tanks tapped by the media for expert commentary, facilitated publication of sympathetic articles in leading outlets where its role wasn’t disclosed, and deterred or challenged negative coverage, according to the documents and emails.
Read the whole article here.