Documentary The Oxy Kingpins Chronicles the Crimes of a New Kind of Kingpin: Big Pharma

Businessmen who made a quick buck by hooking rural America on opioids are in for the court case of a lifetime. Will they pay or walk away?
Documentary The Oxy Kingpins Chronicles the Crimes of a New kind of Kingpin: Big Pharma
Image via IMDb

As someone who was born in a European country that defends a person’s access to free, universal healthcare with the same passion as an American conservative defends a person’s right to own and use a firearm, I have always been a little mistrustful of US-based doctors. Specifically, the readiness with which these doctors prescribe expensive or easily abusable medication like antidepressants, antibiotics, and painkillers. 

Upon graduating med school, future lifesavers are supposed to take the Hippocratic oath: a centuries-old promise made to the Greek god Apollo that they will use their knowledge to heal and never to harm. Until the American healthcare system ceases to be a primarily for-profit enterprise, and the average salary of doctors ($300,000) gets taken down a notch, I cannot help but take the advice of my (very friendly) physician with a grain of salt.

Does this mean I believe a disease like the coronavirus was created in a Chinese lab, and that Microsoft founder Bill Gates is tripling his fortune off its vaccine? No. It does, however, mean that I was not at all surprised to learn several of the country’s largest pharmaceutical companies had become entangled in multiple billion-dollar lawsuits over shipping obscene amounts of highly addictive opioids to some of America’s most vulnerable communities.

Others were.

The Oxy Kingpins

Brendan Fitzgerald’s upcoming documentary The Oxy Kingpins will shake audiences to their core. Although the opioid crisis, created by Big Pharma execs and sustained by networks of drug dealers and medical workers, has been covered in greater detail before (with Patrick Keefe’s investigation of the Sackler family and Beth Macy’s book Dopesick being noteworthy examples), Oxy Kingpins has an important role to play as far as public opinion goes. More on that later.

The shadowy superstructure that kept the opioid epidemic alive and well consists, according to the documentary, of three levels. At the top of the pyramid, you have companies such as Purdue Pharma, manufacturer of the heroin-like substance, oxycodone. At the bottom of the pyramid, you are going to find an equally familiar story playing out: one of dealers buying up large amounts of opioid pills from pharmacies in rural America and shipping them to customers in the big cities.

Then there is the middle level, which is made up of local pharmacies that order alarmingly large amounts of opioid pills for the underpopulated areas they serve, as well as so-called pain clinics operated by medical workers with an incentive to prescribe these drugs as often as possible. Shadowing Mike Papantonio, one of many tort lawyers going after the kingpins, the documentary asks: why CEOs and pharmacists let off the hook so easily, when drug dealers spend multiple years in prison for committing the exact same crime?

It is a burning question that, owing to the countless lives swallowed by the opioid epidemic, deserves a clear, succinct answer. While the culprits scramble to make their forlorn case, recovered addicts continue to be haunted by substances originally prescribed to help them get better. Oxy Kingpins could have shone the spotlight on more of these people, although the few that do get to share their story make clear there can be no excuse for what they had to go through.

Now Lady Justice is playing catch-up. Purdue has already admitted that it “knowingly and intentionally conspired” to dispense opioids, “without a legitimate medical purpose.” The company reached an 8.3-billion-dollar settlement and filed for bankruptcy in 2019. And next month, in April, manufacturers Johnson & Johnson, Endo, Teva, and Allergan will answer for what plaintiffs are calling a “deceptive marketing scheme that trivialized the risks of opioids in order to drive up sales.” 

Too little too late, some might say upon learning that this last case was originally filed in 2014. Better late than never, others could respond. Both sides make good points for fair reasons. One thing they will probably agree on is that Oxy Kingpins, while far from the most thorough investigation on the origins of the opioid crisis, condenses years upon years of evidence into a sprawling panorama that will bring even its most uninformed viewers up to speed about this unbelievable, ongoing public health crisis.

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