Propublica has obtained a tranche of leaked internal communications between the Sackler family's Purdue Pharma, makers of the lethal opioid Oxycontin, and Dezenhall Resources, known as "The Pitbull of Public Relations," whose previous client roster includes Enron CEO Jeff Skilling, Exxon and other "beleaguered corporations," who masterminded a "blame the victim" strategy that apportioned responsibility for Oxycontin's mounting death toll on the people who became addicted to it — not the Sacklers and Purdue, who falsified science, bribed doctors, and made billions from an epidemic that has now claimed more American lives than the Vietnam War.
The leaks reveal how Dezenhall took credit for the work of psychiatrist Sally Satel, a "resident scholar" at the American Enterprise Institute, the DC thinktank notorious for its advocacy for the tobacco industry, against Net Neutrality, against Dodd-Frank, against a national minimum wage, and in favor of climate denial and the Iraq invasion.
Satel penned a series of editorials and gave numerous media appearances that furthered the "blame the victim" narrative for the opioid epidemic, drawing on research funded by the Sacklers and Purdue, which ran under headlines like "Oxy Morons" (WSJ) and "OxyContin doesn't cause addiction. Its abusers are already addicts" (Forbes).
Purdue were $50,000/year funders of AEI, something that Satel says she didn't know about (she also says that she didn't know that the research she cited in her articles was funded by Purdue).
Behind the scenes, the leaks show that Purdue and Dezenhall were intimately involved with Satel's work, with Dezenhall taking credit for briefing her, getting her articles published, and suppressing negative responses (Dezenhall also masterminded a campaign to get prominent retractions for critical articles about Purdue and Oxycontin, then followed up with a PR campaign that leveraged the retractions to generate press that expressed doubt about the risks of opioids).
AEI's other fellows through the years include Antonin Scalia and John Bolton. According to bankruptcy proceedings, Purdue still owes Dezenhall $186,575 for the work it did.
After Purdue and Dezenhall launched their "anti-story," media reports of OxyContin addiction and abuse declined for several years. In 2001, there were 1,204 stories that included the words "OxyContin," "abuse" and "Purdue" published in media outlets archived on the Nexis database. The number plummeted to 361 in 2002 and to 150 in 2006.
Purdue's counterattack against an ambitious investigative series about OxyContin abuse may have contributed to that drop. An October 2003 series in the Orlando Sentinel, "OxyContin Under Fire," found that Purdue's aggressive marketing combined with weak regulation had contributed to "a wave of death and destruction."
The series, however, was marred by several errors that were detailed in a front-page correction nearly four months later. The reporter resigned, and two editors on the series were reassigned. While acknowledging the mistakes, the newspaper did not retract the series, and its review upheld the conclusion that oxycodone was involved in a large number of the overdoses in Florida.
Dezenhall Resources, in an email, took credit for forcing the newspaper to issue the corrections. "Dezenhall's efforts resulted in a complete front-page retraction of the erroneous 5-day, 19-part, front-page Orlando Sentinel series," Hershow wrote in a 2006 email summarizing Dezenhall's work for Purdue under the subject line "Success in Fighting Negative Coverage."
Inside Purdue Pharma's Media Playbook: How It Planted the Opioid "Anti-Story" [David Armstrong/Propublica]
(Image: Geographer, CC BY-SA, modified)