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Empire of Pain

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My name is Gaye Tibbets and I am from Hutchinson, Kansas. I am a fiction lover, so I am as surprised as anyone that my summer read recommendation is non-fiction.
Everyone should read Empire of Pain: The Secret History of the Sackler Family by Patrick Radden Keefe. It is a long book--550 pages, but it reads like a novel and is about the origins of the opioid crisis.

My name is Gaye Tibbets and I am from Hutchinson, Kansas. I am a fiction lover, so I am as surprised as anyone that my summer read recommendation is non-fiction.

Everyone should read Empire of Pain: The Secret History of the Sackler Family by Patrick Radden Keefe. It is a long book--550 pages, but it reads like a novel and is about the origins of the opioid crisis.

The book is the multigenerational story of the Sackler family, an immigrant family that raised three doctor sons who began making their fortune in drug development and sales in the 1940s and 50s. The first generation of Sacklers originated drug marketing. They owned a medical journal that wrote articles about drugs that were not supposed to be advertised, they came up with the idea of hiring drug reps to visit and educate and feed busy doctors to encourage them to prescribe their drugs. They did these things through multiple layers of corporate entities that made the family wealthy without the public connecting them with the source of their wealth.

They marketed Valium and when it became ubiquitous, the first generation of Sackler brothers struck it rich.

As the brothers went from living in a tenement apartment in Brooklyn to becoming almost unfathomably wealthy, they went through wives, lived internationally, became art collectors and hobnobbed with royalty. They were widely beloved for their Carnegie-like philanthropy. They gave vast sums of money in exchange for having buildings and museums and higher education institutions named for them.

The second generation of Sacklers were born into wealth. After some dubious representations to the FDA, their pharma company began marketing Oxycontin as a miracle painkiller. Doctors were assured that it was safe for patients with chronic pain and that unlike previous painkillers, patients would not become addicted or suffer from withdrawal if they stopped taking it.

After sales of Oxycontin exploded, the next two generations of the Sackler family became dependent on almost obscene amounts of money that the drug earned for them. Like addicts, the family justified and minimized and denied the dangers the drug presented because they simply could not give up the money.

The last third of the book traces the family’s decades-long fight against the government and each other to keep their money, avoid accountability and find some way to continue selling Oxycontin.

The book is about the Sackler family, but it also takes a clear-eyed look at the institutions that should have protected the public and failed. For more than seventy years the government—both Republicans and Democrats—had representatives in Congress and in the Food and Drug Administration and even in the courts willing to look the other way when power and wealth assured them of things that simply were not true.

Lawyers insisted Oxycontin was safe even as hundreds of thousands died from either opioid addiction or overdoses from drugs they took when they could not get opioids. Drug reps and doctors looked the other way when clearly addicted patients demanded more and more. Museums and educational institutions accepted Sackler money even after learning where it came from. Prosecuting attorneys tried over and over to charge the Sacklers with crimes or make them or their businesses pay for the damage their product caused with no success.

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