Billions of dollars and more than 300,000 deaths: The real story behind Painkiller.

Netflix's Painkiller is the latest true-crime-story-turned-series that has left viewers horrified.

The limited series explores the causes and consequences of America's opioid epidemic in a dramatised retelling starring Uzo Aduba and Matthew Broderick.

The six-episode series is based on the book Pain Killer by Barry Meier, along with Patrick Radden Keefe's New Yorker article 'The Family That Built an Empire of Pain' and his follow-up book, Pain Killer: An Empire of Deceit and the Origin of America’s Opioid Epidemic.

Watch the trailer for Painkiller here. Post continues after video.

Video via Netflix.

Keefe's work (and the show) predominantly focuses on the rise of OxyContin – a drug manufactured by the company Purdue Pharma, which was owned by the very wealthy Sackler family.

And while some of the 'micro' storylines in the series are fictionalised, the powerful real-life accounts of people who have lost loved ones to opioid addiction act as a stark reminder that the epidemic, and its impact, are very real.


Who are the Sackler family?

The Sackler family are one of the wealthiest families in the US, with an estimated collective worth of around $11 billion.

Purdue Pharmacy was originally founded in 1892 by John Purdue Gray and George Frederick Bingham, before being bought by wealthy doctors and brothers Raymond, Arthur and Mortimer Sackler in 1952.

Raymond's son Richard Sackler started working for Purdue in 1971 and by 1999, he became president. 

Richard became head of research and development along with setting the direction of Purdue as head of marketing. He was integral to the development of OxyContin, pushing the drug to be FDA approved in 1995, along with selling the unsubstantiated narrative that OxyContin was less addictive than other pain killers. 

The rise of OxyCotin.

The new Netflix series relays the tragic story of the ongoing opioid crisis – something many attribute to the marketing and promotion of the drug OxyContin by the company Purdue Pharma in 1996. 

Over the past two decades, it's estimated that more than 300,000 people have died from overdoses involving prescription opioids like OxyContin – and a study by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in the US found that in 2021 alone, more than 75 per cent of the nearly 107,000 drug overdose deaths involved an opioid.

“OxyContin is a drug that has some valuable medical uses,” documentarian and series consultant Alex Gibney told Netflix's Tudum during production


“But when it was marketed too broadly, without concern for its dangers, it was inappropriately and too widely prescribed, which led to massive addiction. That spilled out over and over and over again in communities across North America.”

Purdue – then owned by the ludicrously wealthy Sackler dynasty – is reported to have spent roughly $200 million in 2001 alone on the marketing and promotion of OxyContin. The drug contains oxycodone: an opioid with a very high potential for addiction. (Opioids are a class of drugs that include not only a range of medications that are designed to reduce pain but also the illegal drug heroin.)

Despite this fact, OxyContin was marketed as far less addictive than other opioid medications. When the drug was first made available, the drug's official label stated: “Delayed absorption, as provided by OxyContin tablets, is believed to reduce the abuse liability of a drug.”

Due in part to the promotional efforts from Sackler's Purdue, the sales of OxyContin skyrocketed from $44 million (316,000 prescriptions) in 1996 to combined sales of nearly $3 billion (over 14 million prescriptions) in 2001 and 2002. 

This is where the Painkiller story takes flight, as questions began to arise over Purdue and the mysterious Sackler family at the company's helm. 

Matthew Broderick as Richard Sackler in Painkiller. Image: Netflix.


Pain Killer author Barry Meier told Netflix, “It was really strange because the sales representatives for the [Purdue] company were telling doctors and pharmacists that this new drug was less prone to abuse than competing painkillers," he said.

“No one, not even people in the drug industry, knew much about Purdue or the family that owned it, the Sacklers.”

The Netflix series features testimonies from families who have lost loved ones due to OxyContin addiction. The fictional character of Glen Kryger, played by Friday Night Lights'  Taylor Kitsch, represented the many people who became addicted to OxyContin after being prescribed the medication for pain relief. 


Uncovering the truth.

In 2010, investigative journalist Patrick Radden Keefe started looking into drug cartels in Mexico, which raised wider concerns about the opioid crisis and big pharma. “I noticed that in 2010, the Sinaloa Cartel started sending more heroin across the border into the United States,” he told Netflix. 

“Why would they suddenly supply more heroin? The answer turned out to be the opioid crisis. There was a generation of Americans who had started using heroin after having this on-ramp, which was prescription painkillers like OxyContin.”

Taking inspiration from Meier’s book, Keefe took aim at the Sackler family in his 2017 New Yorker article. “That’s not to say nobody else is to blame for the opioid crisis […] but I do think they played a special role,” he said. 

“I wanted to provide a close-up look at this very wealthy American dynasty, and try to figure out how much moral responsibility they have for this terrible public health crisis that has killed so many people.”

What happened to Purdue Pharmacy and the Sacklers?

The Department of Justice first brought criminal charges against Sackler's Purdue and three top executives in 2007, but the charges excluded any Sackler family members.

In 2007, Purdue pled guilty to federal crimes in relation to deceptive marketing that misled regulators, doctors, and patients, and downplaying the risks of OxyContin addiction. 


Then in 2020, Purdue plead guilty to bribing doctors to prescribe OxyContin, lying about the risk of addiction, and defrauding the US government.

Purdue Pharma filed for bankruptcy in 2019. In September 2021, the company was dissolved with a federal judge ordering the Sacklers to pay $4.5 billion in exchange for the family receiving legal protections. 

The settlement was originally overturned before being increased to $6 billion in 2022.

On the day of Painkiller’s release earlier this month, the Supreme Court put the settlement on pause. 

To this day, the Sackler family has never been criminally charged in connection with OxyContin. Richard Sackler has always maintained that his family played no part in America's opioid crisis. 

Sackler is now 78-years-old, and he lives in a $1.7 million house in Florida. The reigning patriarch of the Sackler dynasty is reportedly worth $1.1 billion. 

Feature image: Netflix.

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