The Crime of the Century: Alex Gibney Tackles the Opioid Crisis in HBO Documentary

The ‘Crime of the Century’ Debuts Amidst Ongoing Opioid Crisis

Since the late 1990s, the United and States and countries across the globe have been plagued by rising overdose rates, related deaths, and illicit drug availability due to the unrelenting opioid epidemic. It forms a crisis derived from the lies spread by pharmaceutical companies and over-prescribing by healthcare providers, a man-made crisis so vast it can accurately be called the ‘Crime of the Century.’

Since 1999, overdose deaths from opioids — including recreational and prescribed — have more than quadrupled in the United States, with over 500,000 lives claimed. As the opioid epidemic continues to affect the lives of countless families, it’s also causing significant financial strain across the United States as more and more measures are taken to combat it. In fact, the Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) estimates that the economic burden of the opioid epidemic in the United States is $78.5 billion a year. This number is a summation of the costs of healthcare, addiction treatment, lost productivity, and criminal justice.

The consequences of the opioid epidemic have been devastating, and yet there seems to be no end in sight. In fact, overdose rates are skyrocketing as we battle another global crisis — the COVID-19 pandemic. Thousands of Americans are falling victim to this public health crisis each year, but the original culprits like Big Pharma have yet to be held accountable for their deplorable actions.

However, one filmmaker and documentarian is making it his mission to call attention to this growing epidemic. After recently releasing his COVID-19 documentary, “Totally Under Control,” Alex Gibney is tackling the opioid crisis in “Crime of the Century.” This eye-opening documentary is set to air on HBO Max in a two-part series on May 10th and 11th. Check out the official teaser for the documentary below.

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Alex Gibney and “The Crime of the Century”

American film director Alex Gibney is one of the most prolific documentarians in the industry, with an impressive depth of work that spans countless discourses and addresses many controversial topics. Some of his films cover topics like COVID-19, Scientology, and the Elizabeth Holmes scandal.

His most recent documentary — before “The Crime of the Century” — “Totally Under Control” dives into the Coronavirus pandemic and the role of former President Donald J. Trump. Unfortunately, this documentary did not make the shortlist for this year’s Best Documentary Feature at the Oscars, but Gibney has rightfully compiled 12 Emmy nominations, five Emmy Awards, three Academy Award nominations, and Academy Award, a Writers Guild of America Award, and much more.

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In his latest exposé, “The Crime of the Century,” Gibney lifts the veil on one of the worst public health crises in United States history and examines the roles Big Pharma, political operatives, and government regulations played in all of it. Specifically, the film takes a look at the confidential Justice Department memo that was issued back in 2006. This memo provided information on a criminal case against Purdue Pharma that claimed that the privately held pharmaceutical company was aware of the highly addictive nature of OxyContin and purposefully misled the public and Congress of its most dangerous quality. According to HBO:

The opioid crisis has resulted in a country ravaged by corporate greed and betrayed by some of its own elected officials, following the aggressive promotion of OxyContin, a highly addictive drug from family-owned pharmaceutical giant, Purdue Pharma. Purdue worked closely with the FDA to get the highly profitable pain medication approved for wider use, promoting its safety without sufficient evidence, and creating a campaign to redefine pain and how we treat it.

When government regulators or Justice Department officials tried to mitigate the wrongdoing, Purdue Pharma and companies like Cardinal-Health that were huge opioid distributors would settle the cases, keep the details private and continue on unabated. As tens of thousands of people succumbed to opioid addiction, the fortunes built by the opiate business became the crime of the century, and the market that OxyContin had opened paved the way for even deadlier prescription drugs.

Shockingly, Purdue and its executive board of corporate greed never faced criminal charges for its unlawful deception of the powerful and deadly prescription drug. Like hundreds of other pharmaceutical companies across the United States, Purdue Pharma continued to make billions on all its ventures.

Perdue Files Revealed

Gibney’s documentary is mainly centered on the heinous and unethical proceedings of Purdue Pharma, whose role in the opioid epidemic is insurmountable. While criminal charges haven’t been brought against this despicable company, they have been involved in a multi-year legal battle to unseal secret files in Kentucky court. In this ferocious legal battle, dozens of documents have been produced that reveal the company’s marketing strategy in selling OxyContin pills. These documents also detailed Dr. Richard Sackler’s — a founding family member of Purdue — role in the entire scheme. The new availability of what should be incriminating documents is one of the main reasons why film director, Alex Gibney, was able to create this prolific documentary.

The documents produced in court date all the way to the early 1990s, where internal emails and other records detailed Purdue’s preparation and strategies for the 1996 launch of the opioid, OxyContin. The family-operated pharmaceutical company made plans to target this powerful opioid to non-cancer patients who suffered from chronic pain. Many of these newly-leaked documents also paint a picture of Purdue’s complete indifference to the rising opioid epidemic as they tirelessly fought off threats to its sales.

Below, we provided a few excerpts from the timeline of Purdue’s unlawful activities that laid the groundwork for the opioid epidemic:

  • June 15, 1993 to April 15, 1994: During this time, researchers at Purdue conducted a clinical trial to test the safety and efficacy of OxyContin. Purdue focused the study on elderly patients with osteoarthritis and enrolled 133 patients. Of the 133, only 63 completed the trial, with 82% claiming they experienced adverse side effects related to the treatment. Despite these concerning results, Purdue falsely concluded that Oxycodone is safe for osteoarthritis-related pain.
  • December 29, 1994: Michael Friedman, the future CEO of Purdue, sent a memo marked “very confidential” to Richard Sackler and two other Sackler family members that outlined the marketing plan for OxyContin. Friedman noted:
    Our current MS Contin business has created ‘a franchise’ with certain physicians who routinely write prescriptions for the drug. These family physicians, general physicians, and internists “may be the bridge that we can use to expand the use of OxyContin beyond Cancer patients to chronic non-malignant pain. We do not want to position OxyContin in a way that will discourage physicians from using OxyContin for chronic non-malignant pain, especially when we have studies available that demonstrate efficacy and safety for this indication.
  • March 31, 1995: The minutes of a marketing team meeting described Purdue’s ambition for the launch of OxyContin in the United States. It was emphasized that the prescription opioid needed to be used for a broader group of pain patients, with a recommended twice-daily dosing.
  • May 6, 1996: Purdue executives met with a pharmacology group at Geneva University Hospital in Switzerland to enlist Pierre Dayer, an influential doctor in the group, to help conduct a study of OxyContin. Documents detail their meeting, and the concern Dayer had for the potential risk factor of addiction. Dayer believed further investigation was needed to look into the abuse and addiction potential of OxyContin versus other opioids.

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  • January 3, 1997: A string of emails between a Purdue sales representative and pain clinic doctors initiates regarding letters from the pharmacy benefit manager, Merck Medco. Merck Medco shared many concerns about the ‘abuse potential’ of OxyContin and MS Contin in two different chronic pain patients. This email was shared with Richard Sackler and Purdue executives. Upon viewing the letters, executives of the pharmaceutical company saw it as a sign of concern among managed care insurance plans over the financial cost of OxyContin for non-cancer patients. They believed it was a threat that needed to be tended to if they didn’t want to go out of business.
  • January 14, 1997: In response to the concerns of Merck Medco, Sackler suggests to Purdue’s medical director that they should create a presentation about addiction.
  • January 25, 1999: A memo was distributed to Purdue’s prescription sales team that describes the aggressive push the company was taking to increase sales. The memo described how the bonuses of sales reps would be calculated in order to incentivize them to sell more.
  • May 30, 1999: Often, Purdue would encourage pain professionals to position the drug as if it was curing an ‘epidemic’ of chronic pain in the United States.
  • August 3, 2001: The Kentucky OxyContin Task Force made recommendations to stop the use of the drug. State officials began to notice an increase of problems related to the opioid that was soon to reach ‘epidemic proportions.’
  • January 3, 2003: A Purdue paper for medical and pharmacy directors of insurance plans argued against the requirement of authorization for OxyContin, as this would restrict access to the drug.
  • February 12, 2004: A letter from the FDA was sent in response to the proposed promotional material by Purdue for OxyContin. This letter cites many misleading and unsubstantiated marketing claims made by Purdue.

By 2013, the Commonwealth of Kentucky was finally able to bring a lawsuit against Purdue and its board of executives. From the timeline above, it’s abundantly clear that Purdue was well aware of the addictive attributes of OxyContin. But instead of being concerned over the effect it may have on the people of our society, they were more wrapped up in the profitability of the opioid once it hit the markets.

Breaking Down “The Crime of the Century” in Two Parts

Alex Gibney’s “The Crime of the Century” is featured in two parts that will be released on May 10th and May 11th on HBO’s new streaming platform HBO Max. Part one of “The Crime of the Century” places a hard focus on Big Pharma and the atrocities of these corporations — including Purdue Pharma — that fueled the epidemic that we are in today. Viewers will have the opportunity to hear from industry experts like opioid specialist Dr. Andrew Kolodny and past employees of Big Pharma companies like former Purdue sales rep. Mark Ross. Other interviews in Part one of “The Crime of the Century” include:

  • Acclaimed author, Patrick Radden
  • Addiction specialist, Dr. Anne Lembke
  • Founder of Life Tree pain clinic, Dr. Lynn Webster
  • Author and NY Times reporter, Barry Meier
  • Primary care physician, Dr. Art Van Zee
  • Former Department of Justice official, Paul Pelletier
  • EMT, Gile Sartin

In addition to these specialists and industry experts, “The Crime of the Century” also features a heartbreaking interview with Roy Bosley, whose wife tragically died from an opioid overdose — just one of over half a million victims this horrific epidemic has claimed since its start.

Part two of the incriminating exposé takes a broader look at the other side of the opioid epidemic, with a focus on the unethical PR campaigns that lied about the safety of opioids. The documentary also shines a light on the countless sales reps from corporations like Insys, who encouraged doctors to issue massive amounts of these prescriptions to patients. But, most importantly, Gibney brilliantly highlights the hundreds of thousands of individuals who found themselves in the dangerous throes of opioid addiction.

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HBO explains that part two of “The Crime of the Century” will shine “a spotlight on the mass marketing of the synthetic opioid fentanyl and examines the connections between drug manufacturers and government policy.” Additionally, HBO shares:

While America’s silent epidemic was killing 40 people a day, Insys Therapeutics, an upstart opioid manufacturer of fentanyl, continued to bribe doctors to overprescribe. Startling video of sales retreats and promotional material speak to a deep cynicism among company employees and a disregard for the widespread, nefarious corporate practices. A complex scheme to defraud the insurance companies existed side by side with fraudulent marketing tactics while lawmakers continued to turn a blind eye to the implications of a complex pipeline that delivers billions of pills around the country.

Part two will also feature shocking interviews from former DEA agent, Joe Rannazzisi, and former DEA attorney Jonathan Novak. Other interviews include:

  • Washington Post reporters, Sari Horwitz, Scott Higham, and Lenny Bernstein
  • Assistant U.S. Attorneys for Massachusetts, David Lazarus, Nathaniel Yeager, and Fred Wyshak
  • Former V.P. of Sales at Insys, Alec Burlakoff
  • Former Insys regional sales manager, Sunrise Lee
  • Fentanyl dealer, Sidney Caleb Lanier

Importantly, part two will feature personal stories of tragedy from the survivors and family members of opioid victims. With newly-leaked documents and behind-the-scenes footage, “The Crime of the Century” truly emphasizes how despicable drug companies are still profiting from the massive crisis they have all created.

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