In covering the world premiere of a new HBO documentary, “Warning: This Drug May Kill You,” at Brown University on April 12, 2017, I wrote a story with the subhead: “Did you know? Coventry facility owned by Purdue Pharma legally manufactures as much as 750 tons a year of the raw ingredient oxycodone used in its prescription painkillers, according to a local doctor.”
Then, in the body of the story, I wrote: “However, what was startling news was the information delivered by Dr. Russell J. Ricci to the audience, during a question-and-answer session following the documentary, that Purdue Pharma owned a manufacturing plant at 498 Washington St. in Coventry, known as Rhodes Technologies.”
The story continued: “The plant manufactured some 750 tons a year of the raw ingredient used in the manufacture of its prescription painkiller pills, in huge vats, according to Ricci. The ingredient is then apparently shipped to facilities in either North Carolina or New Jersey where it is made into pills.”
Further, the story continued: “Translated, Rhode Island is the home of one to the manufacturing plants owned by Purdue Pharma, a veritable ground zero for the prescription painkiller plague.”
Surprise, surprise, surprise
So, a year and a half after I first reported that a Purdue Pharma owned factory in Rhode Island was producing 750 tons a year of the raw ingredient used in its prescription painkiller pills, it was a bit mystifying when Ian Donnis, a reporter with Rhode Island Public Radio, tweeted on Sunday night, Sept. 9, that the Financial Times “reports that the Sackler family, owners of the company making OxyContin, also own an obscure [emphasis added] pharma company in Rhode Island.” Really?
The tweet by Donnis was retweeted by WPRI’s Ted Nesi, as if two of the political reporters in Rhode Island, thanks to the Financial Times story, had suddenly discovered something new.
I responded with a tweet of my own: “Gee, Ian, I covered this story about the company in question more than a year ago. Here’s the link: http://newsletter.convergenceri.com/stories/what-you-do-not-know-may-kill-you-when-it-comes-to-painkillers,3171
Neither Nesi, Donnis or the Financial Times have yet responded, but Joyce Faraone did, tweeting: “Good reporting. Thanks.”
Wait, wait, there’s more
What was not surprising, perhaps, was the story published on Tuesday, Sept. 11, by GoLocal Prov, once again repeating what had been previously reported in Bloomberg and the Financial Times, that “little known to most, Rhode Island is home to one of the world’s largest oxycodone manufacturing plants.”
Outside a small circle of friends
The problem with much of the news coverage around the epidemic of drug overdose deaths is that it is often done in silos, with a limited, narrow focus.
There is a distinct tendency to ignore news reporting if it is “not made here.” Or, to highlight reporting done by members of a small circle of colleagues, who retweet each other’s work as a kind of in-crowd, solipsistic pat on the back.
Here are some important things to know that were apparently not covered by Rhode Island news reporters in the latest “discovery” about the Rhode Island connection to Purdue Pharma:
- Richard Sackler, whose family owns and operates the privately held Purdue Pharma, has been granted a patent for a novel form of buprenorphine, a mild opiate that controls drug cravings and is offered as a temporary substitute to those addicted to heroin or opioid prescription painkillers, according to a story in Fortune published on Sept. 7, referring to the report in the Financial Times.
With the patent, Purdue Pharma is now positioned to challenge the British pharma giant, Indivior, which manufactures buprenorphine under the brand name of Suboxone, for market share. In 2017, Suboxone brought Indivior $877 million in U.S. sales, according to reporting in Forbes.
Translated, Purdue Pharma, which brought you OxyContin, and is being sued for its deceptive marketing practices by Rhode Island municipalities as part of a federal lawsuit, and by the R.I. Attorney General in a civil lawsuit, is positioned to make money by now manufacturing the drug often used in medication-assisted treatment. It represents a new definition of chutzpah; the old definition was a child who kills his or her parents and then asks the court for leniency because he or she is an orphan.
The question is: will the Rhodes Technologies facility in Cumberland be used to manufacture the newly patented version of buprenorphine?
- Instead of looking at the connections between what sociologist Shannon Monnat called the “diseases of despair” and the high mortality rates from alcohol, suicide and drugs for young men and women in Rhode Island between the ages of 25 and 34, the tendency is to keep the reporting and the conversations in silos.
Between 2010-2014, Rhode Island had the highest rate of deaths in the nation for white adults, male and female, from alcohol, suicide and drugs, in that age demographic, 59.8 percent of all deaths, according to CDC statistics.
The new Zero Suicide initiative in South County, which has the highest rate of suicide in Rhode Island, and whose suicide rate grew by 20 percent between 2013 and 2015, with its collaborative approach between hospital systems and community agencies, has potential to begin to link suicide and drug overdoses.
- Still left out of the conversation is alcohol intoxication and abuse. How big is the problem? All you have to do is look at the number of responses by emergency medical services to incidences of alcohol intoxication on a statewide basis, hospital by hospital, to identify the trend.
A bigger problem is that once the ambulances drop off the patients with the indication of alcohol intoxication, most emergency rooms provide little in the way of services or referrals except to allow the patients to dry out, often without ever being admitted.
Keeping a statewide database that tracked the incidence of suicide, drug overdoses, and alcohol would be an important first step in a public health approach.
- The other important part of the conversation, not often reported on, shared, or discussed, are the economic roots of the crisis and its link to the destruction of the middle class and the lack of access to affordable health care.
Some 65 percent of the $2 million awarded to the Zero Suicide initiative in South County will go to cover the costs of treatment of patients who lack health insurance for mental health and behavioral health care or who are under-insured for such care, because their health insurance plan doesn’t cover the costs.
What is the refrain from the Phil Ochs song? I’m sure it wouldn’t interest anybody, outside of a small circle of friends.