When accomplished folks who have racked up awards like Oscars, Emmys, and Pulitzers provide their frank appraisal of the roles of Big Pharma, federal regulators, and law enforcement in the opioid abuse and drug overdose epidemic, they don’t mince words. Just consider the title of their new, four-hour, two-part documentary running on HBO: “The Crime of the Century.”
That headline just starts to capture the gist of the broadcast indictment of the lethal mire that we’ve all gotten sunk into after drug makers — while officials snored — barraged the country with billions of super potent painkiller pills.
The drugs addicted, debilitated, and killed hundreds of thousands of Americans since 1999 in what has been a manufactured menace by profit-hungry Big Pharma, running past every red light and alarm, according to prominent film documentarian Alex Gibney (shown, left) and Washington Post investigative reporters Scott Higham and Sari Horwitz.
“When you hear the phrase ‘the opioid crisis,’ it can sound like it’s referring to a natural disaster with a beginning and an end. But as Alex Gibney’s … “The Crime of the Century” makes devastatingly clear, the opioid crisis is more than a human tragedy that has claimed half a million lives. It’s part of what America has become. We’re a nation of addicts, fueled by scuzzy alternating currents of pleasure and despair; a nation of corporate malfeasance; of doctors who knowingly trash the credo of ‘do no harm’; of regulatory agencies that no longer function as they were designed to; of politicians who allow laws to be written for them. ‘The Crime of the Century’ is a saga of addiction that could have been entitled ‘What We Did for Greed.’”
The review continues:
“The first half of the film investigates how Purdue Pharma, in 1996, brought OxyContin onto the market and pushed it like fast food — in a way that was so medically irresponsible it was morally (and maybe legally) indistinguishable from back-alley drug dealing. OxyContin wasn’t the first opiate identical to heroin to be marketed as a narcotic for pain relief. But each pill was embossed with a sealant that allowed the drug to be time-released into the bloodstream, and the Purdue executives used that fact to pretend that the drug was infinitely safer — less prone to abuse — than it was. The [federal Food and Drug Administration] official Curtis Wright allowed Purdue officials to literally write the drug’s approval for him (within a year, he was hired by Purdue at a salary of $375,000).
“The stage was then set for the drug to be prescribed not just for late-stage cancer patients or for those recovering from surgery, but for anyone suffering from any kind of pain. ‘Pain relief’ sounds like an innocuous phrase out of an old Bayer aspirin commercial, but Gibney captures how the elimination of pain has been elevated, by the pharmaceutical-medical establishment, into a false American cult of wellness … ‘The Crime of the Century’ is a full-scale vision of how America, addicted to pain relief, embraced the corruption of legalized drug pushing.”
The painkiller plague has only worsened, of course, with the earlier drugs giving way to synthetics like fentanyl that packed an even greater wallop — and have killed yet more users. Prescription painkillers opened the door to illicit drugs. What followed was not only abuse and addiction but also fatal overdoses.
The crisis only worsened in the isolation and loneliness of the coronavirus pandemic, with already overwhelmed public health officials struggling to deal with the mess.
In my practice, I see not only the harms that patients suffer while seeking medical services, but also the damage that can be inflicted on them by dangerous drugs. It is good to see Gibney et al underscore what I have written — that over the years, Big Pharma, doctors, hospitals, insurers, and others in health care — fueled by a relentless and excessive push for profits — created the opioid-overdose crisis.
But battling it takes vision and commitment. It can only be helpful that more people know about how we got here and how bad the situation is. We’ve got a lot of work to do to turn around this crisis.