On this edition of Parallax Views, big pharma is likely to find itself under the microscope of public attention once again as concerns arise over it placing profits over people in the midst of the coronavirus pandemic. Noted investigative journalist Gerald Posner, author of Pharma: Greed, Lies, and the Poisoning of America (Avid Reader Press/Simon & Schuster; 2020), joins us to discuss the long, storied, and often shocking history of big pharma in the United States from its turn of the century roots to its much discussed role in the American opioid crisis.
This conversation covers a wide amount of ground beginning with the coronavirus. Then we take a brief detour to discuss the current state of investigative journalism and how challenges facing the field. During this portion of the conversation Gerald reveals that Pharma: Greed, Lies, and the Poisoning of America was a years-in-the-making project that ambitiously set out to tell the story of big pharma in a single volume and took Gerald in unexpected directions. From there, however, we move into a conversation of pharma's early history and how some of it parallels to flim-flam men and snake-oils salesmen selling "miracle cures". We then delve into how pharma changed (and made massive profits) in the WWII era with the development of antibiotics. This leads us into a brief discussion of how a conflict arose betwen pharma's old guard and its new blood in the 1950s. In particular, Gerald and I discuss the figure of Pfizer chariman John McKeen and the young, ambitious advertising man he employed: Arthur M. Sackler.
For the unitiated, the Sackler family are the owners of Purdue Pharma, the privately-owned pharmaceutical company behind Oxycontin, that has come under intense scrutiny due to the American opioid epidemic. Gerald and I discuss the interesting life of Arthur M. Sackler Jewish kid from Brooklyn that faced antisemitism from his WASP neighbors to a political radical that staunchly opposed racism and became an FBI informant against a German company involved in money laundering to the Nazis. Gerald also reveals that Arthur, as well as his card-carrying Communist Party brother Raymond Sackler, were monitored by the FBI during the Red Scare. And finally, at least in regards to Arthur, we discuss how he went from a political radical to becoming comfortable with wealth. We then move onto a discussion of the Sacklers and some of the controversies surrounding them, including stories involving tax havens and the potentially shady ways that the family made millions of dollars off a vitamin-based product. Additionally, Gerald and I discuss how one lawyer referred to the Sacklers as "essentially a crime family". Moreover, Gerald reveals how New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani fits into the controversies around Purdue Pharma and how Purdue Pharma adopted and modified the NRA's maxim "Gun Don't Kill, People Kill People" to their own ends in relation to OxyContin. And finally Gerald briefly tells us about the courageous mother who took on the Sackler family and Purdue Pharma in light of her daughter's passing due to an Oxycontin overdose.
We wrap up the conversation by talking about the possibility for reforming big pharma and how Pharma: Greed, Lies, and the Poisoning of America shows how a figure like "Pharma Bro" Martin Shkreli is only the tip of the iceberg in regards to the dark side of big pharma.