John Oliver hires actors to unbury Sackler deposition on opioids crisis

Last Week Tonight brings in famous actors to read Big Pharma depositions the families behind them would rather bury

John Oliver addressed America’s opioid crisis on Sunday’s Last Week Tonight – his second chapter in “a story of how major companies acted wildly irresponsibly, skirted any meaningful consequences, and for the most part, avoided public scrutiny”.

He started by examining prominent drug distributors – companies such as Cardinal Health, McKesson and AmerisourceBergen – who are supposed to monitor the ordering and delivery of controlled substances. To illustrate “how badly they failed to do that”, Oliver pointed to the town of Kermit, West Virginia, where in two years, McKesson shipped five million pain pills to a town of 400 people.

As a result, in 2008, the Drug Enforcement Agency fined McKesson $13m and ordered them to install their own controlled substances monitoring program. But the program “emphatically did not work” and McKesson continued escalating its distribution to what one DEA told the Washington Post was “a level of egregiousness not seen before”.

Oliver was not surprised. “Of course they did – you can’t put McKesson in charge of monitoring McKesson. If the bears in your zoo get out at night and start mauling the other animals, you don’t deputize one of the bears to monitor the situation.”

This illustrates what Oliver called the big problem with opioid distributors: “For companies involved in the opioid crisis, fines just became the cost of doing business. And throughout this crisis, it has been difficult to find any real accountability for the people involved.”

The most frustrating example of this, Oliver said, is Purdue Pharma, the massive company behind highly addictive OxyContin. Purdue Pharma is owned by the Sacklers, a family worth around $13bn who “love putting their name on things,” said Oliver in reference to their many art museum donations, “although until very recently, they’ve been miraculously good at keeping their name off the opioid crisis”.

That is changing, though, as court cases and public interest reveal the depth of the Sacklers’ involvement in pushing OxyContin on doctors and patients. Oliver focused on Richard Sackler, the son of the company’s founder and its president from 1999-2003 – the pivotal early years of exploding opioid use – who was quoted at a company event that the launch of OxyContin would trigger a “blizzard of prescriptions that will bury the competition”.

Richard Sackler also, according to court documents, encouraged the company to publicly blame opioid addicts for abusing prescription medications. “He’s furious at the people who are part of the problem, but the people he’s angry at helped make him incredibly rich,” Oliver fumed. “You don’t see Adam Levine releasing a song condemning horny middle-aged women, because that would be hypocritical.”

Oliver acknowledged that the Sackler family has vociferously denied exacerbating the opioid crisis, and have claimed that Richard’s quotes were taken out of context. About that context, though – “first, whenever they’ve added context, it hasn’t really helped them much,” Oliver said. And more importantly, “for a family that complains about a lack of context, they have fought tirelessly to withhold it – time and time again, they’ve settled cases on the condition that evidence will be sealed and unavailable to the public.”

For example, a few years ago, the Sacklers settled a case with the state of Kentucky on the condition that the state attorney general destroy 17m pages of documents. “That’s an actual blizzard of context that they did not want anyone to see,” Oliver noted.

A couple of weeks ago, the transcript of a video deposition Richard Sackler gave in that Kentucky case was leaked to ProPublica and Stat News. Some of the comments in it are damning, Oliver said, though it’s far less emotionally effective to read than to see video footage of the deposition. Purdue, however, is “fighting ferociously hard to keep it under seal” – true to form, as Oliver pointed out, given Richard Sackler’s long history of remaining frustratingly invisible despite having fingerprints all over one of the biggest public health crises of the 21st century.

But Oliver had a counterstroke: they’re HBO, and can hire actors to play scenes from Sackler’s deposition, including callous disregard for questioning (Michael Keaton), lack of interest in the crisis (Bryan Cranston), commitment to OxyContin’s success (The Wire’s Michael K Williams) and over 100 “I don’t knows” (Richard Kind).

Last Week Tonight has uploaded clips of each actor portraying Sackler during the deposition, as well as various state lawsuits against the family, to, “which I’m sure they’ll enjoy – they love having their name on fucking galleries,” Oliver joked.

The point, Oliver concluded, is that “Richard Sackler’s deposition should not be something that Purdue gets to bury like it’s buried so many other things over the years … If Richard Sackler wanted context then guess what! This is it. It is a blizzard of context.”


Adrian Horton

The GuardianTramp

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