Editorial: Never mind the death toll; they had money to make

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Last month, New York State Attorney General Letitia James filed what was billed as the nation’s most extensive lawsuit against the manufacturers and distributors of opioids, citing the drug’s role in thousands of deaths across the country.

Prominent in this game-changing lawsuit is the Sackler family, owners of Purdue Pharma, the company behind Oxycontin, the powerful opioid involved in so many deaths on Long Island and across New York State and America.

In 2017, opioid deaths in Suffolk County totaled more than 400; there was no separate count for the five East End towns. We have asked the county health department to break out the death toll for Riverhead, Southold and Shelter Island towns and have been turned down by officials, who say doing so would violate privacy laws.

The estimated drug death toll nationwide in 2017 was 72,000. In one year. That’s something like 200 a day. An estimated 200,000 have died from prescription opioids across the country in the past 20 years.

To put that number in perspective, America’s long involvement in the Vietnam War claimed more than 58,000 lives, and that lasted from the early 1960s to the mid-1970s. You can see the names of all those who died on the Vietnam Veterans Memorial wall in Washington, D.C. 

It would take quite a big wall to record all the names of America’s opioid dead. But every one of those people is remembered by loved ones, who mourn their passing and the lives they were not able to live and the families they lost, including young children. Each family who lost a loved one has their own memorial wall.

First responders on the North Fork speak of deaths as well as numerous overdoses in which victims were resuscitated with Narcan. Some first responders have — to use a new verb for our time — Narcanned the same person multiple times.

The state’s suit blames the Sackler family, along with drug distributors, “for creating the opioid epidemic that has ravaged New York, causing widespread addiction, overdose deaths and suffering.”

The AG’s legal complaint, while heavily redacted, alleges widespread fraud by the Sacklers and a number of distributors who sent massive amounts of opioid painkillers to pharmacies even as the overdose death rate was skyrocketing. You’d think someone working for a distribution company, making his rounds with a trunk full of medications, would wonder why one small-town pharmacy in, say, West Virginia, required tens of thousands of opioid pills. But that is the story we have come to know.

The language of the lawsuit, and its underlying message, is simply staggering: that Purdue Pharma and the distributors pushed millions of pills out into the marketplace, regardless of the horrific consequences that were emerging across the country right before their eyes. They didn’t care. They had millions to make.

As a society, we put drug dealers behind bars for years, in some cases for relatively small quantities. The Sacklers and the distributors have taken their gains and now live high off the hog in such exclusive places as Amagansett on the South Fork. We guess that, in America, there are drug pushers who are very bad people and then there are drug pushers in their corporate offices. Some go to prison; others go to the bank.

The AG’s complaint details how the distributors kept track of their totals and how members of the Sackler family shifted large sums of money from Purdue Pharma to various out-of-reach offshore accounts to conceal their gains. There is something truly sickening about that.

What kind of society would allow such behavior? It really does seem like the game is rigged in favor of the very, very wealthy.

Or, as Bob Dylan once wrote, “Some will rob you with a six-gun/And some with a fountain pen.”