I believe the term is “manslaughter.”
In America, if you knowingly withhold and misrepresent information that leads to the death of a human being, “manslaughter” is the term that is used.
In 2007, a pharmaceutical company and three executives pleaded guilty to knowingly misleading the public by downplaying the abuse potential of their drug; people died as a direct result.
So why has nobody gone to jail?
Why is it that we’ve given corporations the status of “person-hood” yet don’t hold them accountable to the same standards we do a person when they take someone’s life?
Let’s change that.
In 1998, Purdue Pharmaceutical released a promotional video entitled “I Got My Life Back,” touting its newest medication — OxyContin — to treat America’s latest ailment: “chronic pain.”
The video is glorious.
There’s the good ol’ boy Johnny Sullivan, from North Carolina, telling the world that OxyContin’s advent allows him to “enjoy life” for the first time in a long time. “I look at the future the same way a young 25–to-30 year old would,” claimed Johnny in the video. “This drug is a miracle!”
Lauren Cambra can be seen smiling about her ability to go to work and lead a productive life thanks to the drug. “Since I’ve been on this medication,” says Lauren, proudly, “I have not missed one day of work and my boss really appreciates that.”
Ira Pitchal tells the camera how, thanks to OxyContin, he can exercise again. It’s helped improve his health in ways he’d never imagined.
And finally, there’s Dr. Alan Spanos.
You can’t push a drug into the American mainstream without the approval of a doctor. After all, we trust doctors. They took an oath. They’d never steer us wrong.
Dr. Spanos was paid handsomely by Purdue Pharmaceutical to appear in the video. But I’m sure that wasn’t his driving force when he claimed that the rate of addiction for OxyContin was less than 1%, despite medical studies showing its real rate to be as high as 40%.
He’s only 39% off, 100% of the time.
Or when he claimed that patients would not develop a tolerance to the powerful narcotic, despite Purdue’s own medical studies that directly contradicted Dr. Spanos’s claim.
I’m sure the check he cashed from Purdue had no effect on any of these claims as he slung the drug that would eventually usher in what the CDC now considers an American addiction epidemic.
Call me a cynic, but I’d like to investigate nonetheless.
This video, you see, was important to Purdue. Seven patients singing the praises of OxyContin, telling anyone who would listen how the drug has “given them their lives back.” One doctor, validating the safety of the drug, telling anyone who will listen that OxyContin has extremely low abuse potential. They held great, big “ pain management” conferences in Florida, California, Arizona, at expensive resorts, attended by more than 5000 physicians, nurses, and pharmacists — and they showed THIS VIDEO.
This video, by itself, engineered the commencing of a new era in America—an era in which Purdue Pharmaceutical volunteered to treat America for pain it wasn’t even aware it had.
To reverse-engineer the drugging of America, we must begin with the video that started it all.
Once upon a time, there were seven patients; there are no longer seven patients.
Johnny Sullivan died in a fiery car crash, high on OxyContin, ending a life his family had watched disintegrate over the years due to the drug.
Ira Pitchal died of causes attributed to use of the drug with pills still in his pocket. He’d only recently been released from a detox facility, a last-ditch attempt at getting off the drug that had taken control of his life.
Lauren Cambra barely escaped with her life, losing her job, home, and car as she diverted all of her income to maintaining her habit after losing her health insurance.
And Dr. Alan Spanos is still practicing medicine.
I want to investigate the untimely and tragic deaths of Johnny Sullivan and Ira Pitchal. I want to investigate the life of Lauren Cambra. I want to give them the respect they deserve, beyond the statistics they’ve since become. I want to tell their story, the story of the dead and dying. I want to explore the blurred ethical lines of doctors being paid to act as pharmaceutical salesmen. And ultimately, I want to tell the story of a corporation that knowingly and blatantly lied about a product that led to the deaths of the very people it used to market that product. I want to take these findings, lay them at the feet of America, and ask,
Why should I be the one to write this story? The people whose deaths I’ll be investigating — I’ve been there. I’ve seen that hell up close. I’ve tasted it. I’m not some reporter trying to understand the tragedy and complexity of drug addiction. I’m a writer who’s been there and made it out, and now lives to tell about it.
My background? It’s not in old-school journalism, which is an advantage. This is not the type of story that can be accurately gathered by getting in and out with the five W’s, a notepad and pencil behind the ear. I have a social science background, meaning I don’t just look at a single event and report it. I look at the big picture. How did this happen? Why is this happening? And what will happen next?
Using this method of reporting, my investigative series “Heroin in the Foothills” is currently nominated for the California Newspaper Publishers Association’s “Better Newspapers” Award in three categories (Public Service, Investigative Series, and Enterprise), and ran on the front page of four local California newspapers.
The series is being submitted for Pulitzer nomination in December in the categories of Explanatory Reporting and Public Service.
Why me? I know how to get interviews. Two parts charming, one part annoying, and persistence, persistence, persistence. I’ve sat down with drug dealers after earning their trust, drug addicts as they fixed dope in a spoon, and nurses on their smoke break after sneaking my way into the ER. I’ve interviewed government officials and presented to government officials at the California Board of Pharmacy.
This story is timely and relevant, thus demanding a platform that is correspondingly timely and relevant. It demands a publication that is not filtered by hidden agendas or lobbyist funding. And it demands a writer who is up to the task, who can investigate while maintaining a powerful narrative.
The investigation is imperative, because with solid information and accurate reporting, the story cannot be discounted. Facts speak for themselves. Examples of research-intensive pieces I have written in the past can be found here and here.
But this cannot be a story about percentages, or statistics, or names, or dates. This story must be driven with a strong narrative, personalizing both the tragedy and the crime. It must be made real, personal, forcing the reader to care and take action and make a difference. The narrative will be driven around the subjects in the video, giving them the respect and demanding the accountability they deserve. Examples of a strong narrative-driven pieces I have written can be found here and here.
Nobody wants to touch Big Pharma. They’ve got deep pockets and lawyers on retainer, just waiting for someone to attack them with bad information.
The remedy: Use facts that are indisputable, well written, and on point.
Fact: Johnny Sullivan is dead after having been lied to about the drug he was prescribed.
Fact: Ira Pitchal is dead after having been lied to about the drug he was prescribed.
Fact: In 2007, Purdue Pharmaceutical pleaded guilty to knowingly misrepresenting the abuse potential of the drug to doctors.
Fact: OxyContin was unleashed onto the American public, prescribed by doctors who were sold on the drug with the video “I Got My Life Back,” starring Johnny Sullivan, Ira Pitchal, and Dr. Alan Spanos, in 1998.
These are the facts. They are indisputable. I don’t care how lawyered up you are, you can’t strike reality from existence. String these realities together, and you get a glaring picture of corporate irresponsibility and wrongful death. So let’s take reality and push it into the face of the American public.
When I turned in “Heroin in the Foothills” I told my editor if he could find one inaccurate number in my research, I’d write the entire series for free.
I got paid.
I’m not sure where this story will take us. As with any investigation, the road may wind in a direction that I wasn’t expecting or that I hadn’t anticipated. I’m prepared. That’s exciting to me. I want to learn, to explore, to find. This will not be a story where facts are cherry-picked to meet a hypothesis. I want to absorb as much information as I can and allow the story to form on its own, watching it grow as more information is gathered.
This story will be told by telling their story, through investigation and exploration, reporting from the scene of the corporate crime. My story will raise questions and demand answers. I will tell the story of how an insidious drug spread throughout the country by tracing its beginnings to a single video, and paint a picture of the lives destroyed in the process.
Wasted life. Wrongful death. Corporate accountability.
Sacramento, California to Raleigh, North Carolina (home of video subjects, confirmed)
$175 flight, $4 Cinnabbon at the airport, $600 five-night stay
Raleigh, North Carolina to Lexington, Kentucky (epicenter of OxyContin Abuse, interview Attorney General who has filed suit against Purdue, confirmed)
$200 flight, $200 two-night stay
Lexington, Kentucky to Stamford, Connecticut (Purdue Pharmaceutical headquarters)
$250 flight, $350 three-night stay
Stamford Connecticut to Washington, D.C. (FDA Interview, Confirmed; possible interview with Sen. Feinstein, unconfirmed)
$65 train, $300 two-night stay
Washington, D.C. to to Sacramento
Average $50 per diem food (excluding airport Cinnabon costs), taxi, etc.
Rental car for 12 days of travel $960
$4,004 total for travel & accommodation (rough estimate — true cost likely lower, as I’ll use Air BnB instead of hotels)