KOMARAGIRI: Jailing executives will not solve opioid crisis

Column: Bleeding Hearts

Billionaire and pharmaceutical executive John Kapoor was sentenced to 66 months in prison on Jan. 23 for his role in fueling the opioid epidemic. 

His company, Insys Therapeutics, produced the highly addictive opioid Subsys and bribed doctors to administer prescriptions despite the potency. This is a rare moment of justice brought toward an otherwise untouchable class of corporate profiteers benefiting from one of the deadliest drug epidemics in recent history. 

President Donald J. Trump's administration declared the opioid epidemic as a national emergency in 2017 at the urging of an interim report developed by his Commission on Combating Drug Addiction and the Opioid Crisis. The commission found that between 1999 and 2015, more than 560,000 Americans have died due to drug overdoses. 

Americans lead the world in opioid consumption. While this particular epidemic engendered sympathy of legislators due to victims being predominantly white, communities of color have also seen substantial increases in overdose deaths this past decade. 

I truly encountered the scale of the crisis while working as a labor organizer for American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees (AFSCME), where I helped unionize behavioral healthcare staff employed by private firms throughout New Jersey. 

Wherever workers could be, we went: group homes, homeless shelters and addiction clinics. At the work sites where management did not throw us out, we were able to speak with workers on the frontlines of the opioid crisis. I saw strong, dedicated people who were worn down from the herculean labor of serving marginalized populations on a shoestring budget. 

Interacting with “consumers,” those in the recovery process who are housed in these facilities, I was left with the understanding that this suffering is a clear symptom of greed. 

At the center of much discourse on the issue of drugs in America is the Sackler family, owners of Purdue Pharma, the manufacturer of OxyContin. A confidential report from the United States Department of Justice from 2006 had uncovered  that Purdue Pharma knew about the addictive nature of its drug since its inception. 

Purdue Pharma had an understanding that their drugs were not only addictive, but also their weak potency for pain management made them especially likely to be abused. The reason this was ignored: a profit of $13 billion. 

It is tempting to defend the economic system that produces these outcomes by labeling them edge cases, unusual occurrences of corporate avarice overcoming basic ethical considerations. 

Stanford University-based philosopher Debra Satz outlines what she calls “noxious markets,” those that take advantage of weak agents or otherwise vulnerable demographics. 

Applying this heuristic to the practices of Purdue Pharma, its deliberate concealment of information related to the dangers of its product leaves its clients as weak agents. I feel that this sort of manipulation is a feature of our market system rather than a defect. 

Companies at their core are concerned with profits above all else. What Adam Smith called the “vile maxim of the masters of mankind” is expressed in modern business parlance as “maximizing shareholder value.” 

Purdue Pharma filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy in September 2019, responding to a settlement that would cost the Sackler family 3 billion of their own dollars while allowing them to continue to profit from the drug internationally. 

State attorneys general have been split across party lines with regards to support of such a settlement. Democratic attorneys generals have correctly expressed disgust that these settlements will still leave the Sackler family billionaires. 

My first impulse is to relish the arrest of pharmaceutical executives like John Kapoor, and insist that some of the Sackler family suffers the same repercussions. But, this will not remedy our situation. What the opioid epidemic reveals is the necessity for a larger reappraisal of our economic and societal values. 

So as long as profit incentive is the largest motivator of our country’s large industries, businesses will continue to obfuscate the public health dangers of their products or practices. So long as we underpay healthcare workers — denying them benefits and the right to organize to better their circumstances — and we also give up on the nearly 54 million Americans suffering from a behavioral health condition. 

Although they deserve it, no amount of jailed white-collar criminals can deliver these changes. This crisis, and many others, must end through every day Americans working to reconstruct our economy with the welfare of people at the center. 

Veenay Komaragiri is a Rutgers Business School and School of Arts  and Sciences senior majoring in business analytics and information  technology. His column, “Bleeding Heart,” typically runs on alternate Tuesdays.


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