John Oliver Takes On Sackler Family, Opioid Epidemic

By Kelly Burch 04/17/19

"Last Week Tonight" tackled the opioid epidemic again—this time putting the spotlight on the Sackler family members who have reportedly played a role in it.

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John Oliver spotlighted the opioid epidemic for the second time on HBO's Last Week Tonight. This time, the late-night host recruited the help of actors Michael Keaton, Bryan Cranston and more, to bring to life the 2015 deposition of former Purdue Pharma president Richard Sackler about the company's marketing of OxyContin. 

Oliver addressed the Sackler family members' alleged role in the opioid epidemic, drawing from pages of legal documents that are being made public as more and more municipalities sue the giant drug manufacturer, most famous for marketing OxyContin. 

He pointed out that the billionaire Sackler family, while donating to arts and research institutions around the world, has made an effort to stay out of the public eye. In fact, Oliver said, there are very few photos, let alone video footage, of Richard Sackler available in the public domain. 

So, Oliver brought in actors to read the transcript of Sackler’s deposition in a 2015 case brought by the state of Kentucky. Purdue settled with the state on the condition that millions of pages of documents brought as evidence be destroyed, but the deposition was leaked and Last Week Tonight made the entire 140-page document available online

The show also put together a website, The Sackler Gallery, to showcase the family’s role in the opioid crisis. On the website, actors Bryan Cranston, Michael Keaton, Richard Kind and Michael K. Williams give life to Richard Sackler’s testimony. 

“The launch of OxyContin tablets will be followed by a blizzard of prescriptions that will bury the competition,” Williams says in one clip, repeating Sackler’s infamous proclamation. “The prescription blizzard will be so deep, dense and white.” The Sacklers have said that this comment was taken out of context.

In another clip, the actors repeat Sackler’s proclamation that people who abused opioids were to blame for the epidemic. He referred to them as “criminals,” trying to shift the blame away from himself. 

Oliver rightly noted that while Sackler seemed to take issue with these people's excessive drug use, his company did nothing to curb suspicious drug sales that were earning the company billions. 

“He is furious at the people who are part of the problem, but the people he’s angry at helped make him incredibly rich,” Oliver said. “You don’t see Adam Levine making a song condemning horny middle aged women because that would make him hypocritical.”

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Kelly Burch writes about addiction and mental health issues, particularly as they affect families. Follow her on TwitterFacebook, and LinkedIn.

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