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Ralph Reiland

Ralph R. Reiland: Billions made from addictive opioid drugs

| Sunday, Jan. 28, 2018, 9:00 p.m.
OxyContin, an opioid painkiller.
OxyContin, an opioid painkiller.

Tom Petty, 66, died in October from an accidental drug overdose caused by mixing medications involving opioids. Prince, 57, had a similar ending 18 months earlier.

Petty's family posted on his website: “(W)e recognize this report may spark a further discussion on the opioid crisis and we feel that it is a healthy and necessary discussion and we hope in some way this report can save lives. Many people who overdose begin with a legitimate injury or simply do not understand the potency and deadly nature of these medications.”

A medical examiner's report showed Petty had traces of multiple opioids in his system when he died a week after concluding a nationwide tour. Petty suffered from “emphysema, knee problems and a fractured hip,” stated his family. Out of commitment to fans, they said, Petty performed 53 concerts with the fractured hip that worsened during the tour and developed into a full break as he increasingly turned to medications to lessen escalating pain.

“The opioid epidemic goes back to the 1990s, with the release of OxyContin and mass marketing of prescription painkillers,” wrote German Lopez, senior reporter at Vox.

Widespread OxyContin marketing was buttressed with campaigns by its producer that minimized its addictive properties and pushed doctors to reduce concerns about painkillers and change prescribing practices. “This contributed to the spread of opioid painkiller misuse and addiction, which over time also led to greater use of illicitly produced opioids like heroin and fentanyl,” explained Lopez.

As a result, drug overdose deaths have climbed every year since the late '90s. In 2016, there were nearly 64,000 U.S. drug overdose deaths — an all-time high — and at least two-thirds were linked to opioids.

Regarding more recent years, stated Lopez, “the early data suggests that 2017 was worse,” according to figures from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

An Oct. 30 report in The New Yorker, “The Family That Built an Empire of Pain,” begins with a list of the physical embodiments of the generosity of one of America's largest philanthropic dynasties: the Sackler Wing of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Sackler Gallery in Washington, the Sackler Wing at the Louvre, Sackler professorships and facilities at Harvard, Yale, Columbia, Oxford and a dozen more universities, the Sackler Center for Feminist Art at the Brooklyn Museum, the Sackler Wing at the Guggenheim.

The four Brooklyn-born Sackler brothers, all physicians, developed the privately held family business, Purdue Pharma, which created and extensively marketed OxyContin, which reportedly generated $35 billion in revenue.

Unfortunately, the Sackler galleries and museum wings — highbrow, majestic, well-funded — appear to be in better shape than the Sacklers' OxyContin users.

Castle Medical, which specializes in pain management and toxicology testing, reports that globally, on average, it's estimated that “100,000 people die from OxyContin abuse per year.”

Ralph R. Reiland is associate professor of economics emeritus at Robert Morris University and a local restaurateur (

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