“Painkillers” (Netflix): A Capitalist Metaphor

We moved from Ottawa to the South Shore of Nova Scotia more than a decade ago. Finding a family doctor was one of our first challenges. We thought ourselves lucky when we landed one in a clinic on the edge of Halifax, some 90 miles away. However, we became troubled by this recent med school grad’s penchant for pharmaceutical remedies and we continued our search for a doctor nearer home.

We were fortunate to find one eventually, nearby, whose collaborative approach to our health and reluctance to turn to drugs suited us much better. Not long thereafter, we read a news report describing the arrest of our previous doctor. Her crime? Selling opioids on the black market that she obtained by writing false prescriptions in the name of patients unaware of their part in the grift.

That was 2012, and we were already aware of the risk of over-prescription of opioid painkillers and resulting addiction. The desperation of opioid users was cited as the reason behind the rash of home invasions and break-ins in Lunenburg County. I remember being grateful I had not had to call on our first doctor’s help in addressing chronic or extreme pain.

Since then, I have read a considerable amount about the infamous Sackler family and their company, Purdue Pharma, their search for a blockbuster drug that patients couldn’t do without, and the co-option of first, regulators, and then, doctors in that effort. In the end, they succeeded in turning patients into junkies with the blessing of captured regulators and enlisting doctors as mostly unwitting pushers.

Despite Purdue’s awareness of the addictive properties of oxycontin, its flagship drug, the company suppressed that information, convincing the U.S.  Food and Drug Administration (FDA) that the opioid was both harmless and a blessing to those in pain. Doctors who prescribed it readily were rewarded with grateful patients who became demanding return users as well as a variety of corporate perks.

It is a classic tale of capitalist greed fostering blindness and complicity in all involved, while justifying their extraordinary returns with a self-serving philosophy of doing good by easing pain.

“Painkillers”, the Netflix docudrama series on the Sackler story verges on cartoonish in its portrayal of good and evil. Matthew Broderick fits the bill as an almost cardboard arch-villain, the scion, Richard Sackler, a cynical, manipulative, pusher/salesman, determined never to admit responsibility for the tragic and deadly consequences of the widespread availability of his drug. The Canadian actor, Taylor Kitsch, is his everyman victim. The story is now almost too familiar and predictable, and yet we follow it to its recognizable conclusion, nodding knowingly at yet another story of modern capitalist corruption exposed.

But this is much more than a story about the lucrative drug trade. After all, addiction is akin to over-investment. Finding junkies for one’s product is the capitalist ideal.

Living in Alberta today, it is easy to substitute Big Oil’s promotion and exploitation of our addiction to fossil fuel production and consumption, with all its attendant death and destruction, for Big Pharma’s promotion of opioid addiction.

Both occur within a framework of legality, apparently under the watchful oversight of public regulators, and with the joyful participation of those (the junkies) who will eventually be counted among the unwitting victims. Both have supressed research that confirms the disastrous effects of their products. Both rely on misinforming, even outright lying to, the public. Both also rely on their troops of compradors, whether doctors in one case, or lobbyists and political leaders hooked on their fare (witness Danielle Smith’s recent moratorium on renewable energy projects in Alberta – the irrationality of the junky).

These are stories of corporate colonialism in an age where fundamental decisions about our economy, our health, the sustainability of our way of life and our environment, have been relegated to unelected, unregulated, minorities of short-sighted vision, driven by personal greed.  

The antidote can only be more democratic control in the hands of an active electorate that demands and relies on verifiable evidence. Getting there will be a long slog. The lives saved are its reward.

By Peter Puxley

Hi, I'm Peter Puxley, an economist, geographer and urban planner by academic training, and a political organizer/activist, development educator, journalist, policy wonk, researcher and political staffer by practice. I have tried my hand at poetry, fiction and non-fiction writing, some of which has been published.

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