Preface to the Justification

graphic about profiteering

Perhaps you notice how the denial is so often the preface to the justification.              — Christopher Hitchens

My last name is not Sackler. The gods sometimes kibitz with kindness. A name once engraved into stone now has stones thrown at it. The people at the Louvre are the latest to distance themselves from the miasma named Sackler. The Louvreans have clipped “the Sackler Wing” of the museum, but they didn’t return the Sackler family’s donation.

You know you’re a witness to a serious life lesson when a plaque about the source of a donation is removed. It’s like some cities in the United States that imagine that the expulsion of a statue of a Confederate officer means the city is then racially and morally fixed. Unbranding can be a kind of branding. Capitalists are magical that way. The energy left over after prostituting yourself can be devoted to denying you’re a prostitute.

Remember when the U.S.A.’s President thought the answer to planes falling out of the sky due to lousy design was simply to rebrand. Sorry, the tweet had “REBRAND,” all caps for an audience accustomed to screaming.

Meanwhile, being a Sackler isn’t fun as it used to be. David Sackler tells a reporter for Vanity Fair that his family is blameless. He decided to speak out, in part because his “four-year-old came home from nursery school and asked ‘Why are my friends telling me that our family’s work is killing people?'” That doesn’t sound like a four-year-old’s sentence, but then this child probably is sent to an expensive school for exceptional and accelerated learners. Let’s give David the benefit of the doubt, or chalk it up to wretched paraphrasing.

The reporter reveals that “at times, [David] appears almost on the brink of tears.” These are the same kind of tears Theresa May had at the end of her time as Prime Minister. Owen Jones called out those kind of tears: “Theresa May didn’t publicly break down over Windrush, or Grenfell, or disabled people having their benefits cut, or children driven into poverty. In the end, she only publicly shed a tear over her own career.” Likewise, David isn’t on the brink out of empathy with any of the people destroyed by opioids. His nascent tears are for him and his kin. In David’s view, according to the interview, “his family is being blamed for something they did not do.”

The article recounts not so much reflections about what the Sackler clan might have done differently while collecting profits from opioids as opioid overdoses devastated American state after state. In the course of denial, David doesn’t see a few howlers sitting out there in the evidence about what his family’s company did. Where David sees benevolent oversight, others see greed and corruption. It takes a minute or two for one of the howlers to unfold:

Sackler points to the decision in 2010 to launch a new form of OxyContin — one that was supposed to be an “abuse deterrent” because it couldn’t be broken down and snorted or injected. “We made a tremendously honest and ethical effort to fix a problem,” he says. “That’s all. To fix a problem.” The reformulated OxyContin, he adds, cost more than $1 billion U.S. to develop. At the time, he points out, the new version was praised by many of the state attorneys general who are now suing the company for marketing it. “We have gone past the point where not good deed goes unpunished,” he says, “into the theater of the absurd.”

But it is hard to see the move as merely a good deed. The abuse-deterrent form of OxyContin was approved a few years before the patent on the old version was about to expire. Then, in what an investiation by Esquire magazine called a “breathtaking pivot,” Purdue fought to prevent would-be generic competitors from copying its old version of OxyContin. The company, Esquire observed, argued “that the drug it had been selling for 15 years was so prone to abuse that generic manufacturers should not be allowed to copy it.”

In an article in today’s Wall Street Journal, venture funding for new antibiotics is declining, “just as new innovation is needed.” Why? It’s about “return on investment,” not about saving human lives. The Sacklers are not sui generis in the pharmaceutical business.

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