The true story behind the Netflix series ‘Painkiller’ (2024)

Painkiller,” a six-episode series that offers a dramatized look at the origins and aftermath of the opioid crisis, has hit Netflix. Matthew Broderick takes the lead as Richard Sackler, the former president and co-chairman of the now infamous pharmaceutical giant Purdue Pharma that heavily pushed OxyContin into the market.

Here’s a look at the true story behind “Painkiller” — and the latest on Purdue Pharma and the Sackler family.

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What is the ‘Painkiller’ Netflix series based on?

While “Painkiller” is a dramatized series, it’s inspired by work from two investigative journalists: Patrick Radden Keefe’s New Yorker article “The Family That Built an Empire of Pain,” and Barry Meier’s novel“Pain Killer: An Empire of Deceit and the Origin of America’s Opioid Epidemic.” Both authors are involved with the Netflix series —Meier as a consulting producer, and Keefe as an executive producer.

In the 2017 New Yorker piece, Keefe dives into the history of the Sackler family, who bought what eventually became Purdue Pharma —a company based in Stamford, Connecticut, that developed OxyContin. Forbes has previously listed the Sacklers as one of “America’s richest families.”

Decades before OxyContin hit the market, there were groundbreaking advertising techniques largely pioneered by Arthur Sackler — who marketed tranquilizers like Librium and Valium in the 1960s —that would become a mainstay of the opioid crisis.

“As both a doctor and an adman, Arthur displayed a Don Draper-style intuition for the alchemy of marketing,” Keefe writes. “He recognized that selling new drugs requires a seduction of not just the patient but the doctor who writes the prescription.

“... In selling new drugs, he devised campaigns that appealed directly to clinicians, placing splashy ads in medical journals and distributing literature to doctors’ offices. Seeing that physicians were most heavily influenced by their own peers, he enlisted prominent ones to endorse his products, and cited scientific studies (which were often underwritten by the pharmaceutical companies themselves).”

Sackler was inducted into the Medical Advertising Hall of Fame in 1997 —10 years after his death at the age of 73.

Sackler’s nephew, Richard Sackler, became president of Purdue Pharma in 1999 (he started with the company as an assistant to his father, Raymond, in 1971). With a heavy push from Richard Sackler, OxyContin was approved by the FDA in 1995 — and at the time, it hadn’t undergone clinical studies to examine the potentially addictive nature of the drug, per The New Yorker.

Soon after the drug’s approval, Curtis Wright, the FDA examiner who oversaw the reviewing process, left the FDA and got a $400,000 position at Purdue, according to a Business Insider article about Keefe’s research.

Under Richard Sackler, his father, and his uncle, Mortimer Sackler, Purdue launched a massive advertising effort “that attempted to ... change the prescribing habits of doctors,” Keefe wrote, noting that “Richard Sackler worked tirelessly to make OxyContin a blockbuster.”

A 1997 email exchange indicates that Richard Sackler supported a decision by Purdue executives “not to correct a misperception among doctors that OxyContin (was) weaker than morphine” — when it was in fact twice as strong, per ProPublica.

Purdue’s marketing of OxyContin started with persuading doctors that it was safe — backed by literature that was produced by doctors who were financially motivated by the company.

“The company funded research and paid doctors to make the case that concerns about opioid addiction were overblown, and that OxyContin could safely treat an ever-wider range of maladies,” Keefe reported. “Sales representatives marketed OxyContin as a product ‘to start with and to stay with.’ Millions of patients found the drug to be a vital salve for excruciating pain. But many others grew so hooked on it that, between doses, they experienced debilitating withdrawal.”

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In 2020 alone, nearly 75% of the 91,799 drug overdose deaths in the U.S. involved an opioid, per the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Studies from theNational Institutes of Healthhave indicated that prescription opioid addiction can lead to illicit drug addiction.

Over the past two decades, roughly 300,000 Americans have died after overdosing on prescription pain medication, The Guardian reported.

In an interview with The Guardian, Broderick considered the perpetrators of the crisis.

“Is it the man who developed OxyContin? Or is it the doctors who prescribed it, or the drugstores that sold it? There are a lot of villains. It’s too simple to blame it all on one person,” Broderick said. “I’m sounding like Richard Sackler here. But it’s true. A lot of people have done bad things in their life but if you talk to them, they never think they’re doing bad things. That’s what’s really scary: people’s capacity for self-delusion.”

While “Painkiller” is a dramatized account of the opioid crisis, each of the six episodes begins with a disclaimer that the series is based on real events — an opening read by parents who have lost a child as a direct result of OxyContin addiction, The Los Angeles Times reported.

Is Glen Kryger in ‘Painkiller’ a real person?

Providing a face to the victims of the opioid crisis in “Painkiller” is the fictional character Glen Kryger, played by Taylor Kitsch. Kryger is a mechanic who gets injured at work and, gradually over the course of six episodes, descends into addiction.

“Man, it’s pretty close to me, this thing,” Kitsch told Netflix’s Tudum of playing the role. “Unfortunately, I think we’re all one degree away from someone who’s an addict.”

“Painkiller” director Pete Berg, known for “Friday Night Lights,” said the fictional character represents “tens of thousands” of people.

“There’ve been tens of thousands of Glens; just hardworking family people who got hurt, often by accident, who were in pain and were prescribed OxyContin, particularly back in the days when nobody knew what OxyContin was,” Berg told Rotten Tomatoes. “He just got caught in the web of addiction. ... I’ve known Glens. I’m sure you’ve known Glens or if you don’t know them personally, you know someone that does.”

What happened to Purdue Pharma? Is it still around?

Purdue Pharma has “pleaded guilty to misbranding and fraud charges related to its marketing of OxyContin” twice — in 2007 and 2020, Reuters reported. In 2010, it discontinued the original OxyContin and released one that could potentially reduce abuse of the drug, per The New York Times.

Purdue Pharma said it would stop marketing opioid drugs to doctors in 2018, according to CBS News. Facing thousands of civil lawsuits, the company filed for bankruptcy in 2019, per PBS.

Several attorneys general disapproved of the bankruptcy plan, stating that it“granted a lifetime legal shield to the Sackler family,” according to a news release from the New Hampshire Department of Justice.

The U.S. District Court vacated the bankruptcy order in 2021, but it was reinstated in May of this year, with the 2nd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruling that the Sackler family would be protected from lawsuits in exchange for a $6 billion settlement that would go toward funding opioid treatment and prevention, Reuters reported. In late July, the U.S. Department of Justice asked the U.S. Supreme Court to stop Purdue Pharma from moving forward with the settlement, the Deseret News reported.

On Aug. 10 — the same day “Painkiller” hit Netflix —the Supreme Court temporarily blocked the settlement, CBS News reported.

“The justicesagreedto a request from the Biden administration to put the brakes on an agreement reached last year with state and local governments,” per CBS News. “In addition, the high court will hear arguments before the end of the year over whether the settlement can proceed.”

The issue will be debated in December, according to Forbes.

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Rich Piatt, a spokesperson for the Utah Attorney General’s Office, told the Deseret News that if the settlement moved forward Utah would likely receive less from Purdue than what it has received from other companies, noting that the interest in Purdue Pharma has more to do with the marketing campaigns behind the opioid products it created than its actual market share.

Purdue Pharma would dissolve once the bankruptcy plan goes into effect, according to Reuters, becoming a new company owned by the National Opioid Abatement Trust.

“Knoa Pharma will develop and distribute millions of doses of opioid addiction treatment and overdose reversal medicines,” reads a post on American Pharmaceutical Review. “It will also continue serving patients and consumers who rely on Purdue’s existing medicines and products; and it will utilize its scientific capabilities to bring to market other potentially life-saving medicines in its pipeline.”

What happened to Richard Sackler? Where is he now?

The Sacklers have not taken personal responsibility for the opioid crisis, The New York Times reported.

“While the families have acted lawfully in all respects, they sincerely regret that OxyContin, a prescription medicine that continues to help people suffering from chronic pain, unexpectedly became part of an opioid crisis that has brought grief and loss to far too many families and communities,” the Sacklers said in a statement last year, per The New York Times.

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According to The New Yorker, none of Arthur Sackler’s descendants sit on the company’s board —“none of the descendants of Arthur M. Sackler have ever had anything to do with, or benefited from, the sale of OxyContin,” a grandson of Sackler told The New Yorker.

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Richard Sackler stepped down as president of Purdue Pharma in 2003, but remained on the board until 2018, according to The Wall Street Journal. His father, Raymond Sackler, died in 2017.

Despite their name being in the spotlight, the Sacklers remain somewhat elusive. Richard Sackler previously taught genetics at Rockefeller University before moving to Austin, Texas, in 2013, according to The New Yorker.

As of 2023, and facing a number of lawsuits over the years, he has sold $30 million worth of property, per the New York Post.

The true story behind the Netflix series ‘Painkiller’ (2024)
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