Richard Sackler In ‘Painkiller,’ Explained: Why Did Sackler Create OxyContin?


Painkiller is the story of how detrimental greed can be and how it doomed an entire nation and brought about an epidemic that took millions of innocent lives. After the death of Arthur Sackler, the big question that came to the attention of his extended family was how they would pay off the debts incurred by the man. Amidst all the clutter, there was one person who was not just thinking about how to come out of this situation, but he also had a vision of how he wanted to carry forward the legacy of Arthur Sackler. Richard Sackler’ character is based on the real-life business tycoon who was responsible for bringing oxycontin in the market. 

According to the Netflix series, it was Richard Sackler who convinced his family members to hold onto one specific company named Purdue Pharma and give up the ownership of others so that they could pay their debts. His family members did not understand why he was so adamant to keep Purdue Pharma when there were many better ventures that could give him greater profit. But that’s where Richard was different from his family members, as he could recognize potential when he saw it. He knew that Purdue Pharma was a goldmine, and with it, he could do something that no man had ever imagined.

Unlike Arthur Sackler, Richard was not that interested in leaving behind a legacy; he just wanted to make so much money that for generations, nobody would have to face any sort of financial crisis and have an opulent lifestyle. While Arthur was an industrialist, Richard was a true businessman, and only money fueled his motives and nothing else. His superpower was that he could see something that didn’t exist in the present, and the Sackler family was in desperate need of someone who could show some initiative and lead them in a particular direction because if things had been left to them, they would have ruined the entire empire.

When asked by his family members about why he wanted to hold onto Purdue Pharma, Richard said that they had a magic pill patented under their name that was called MS Contin. This painkiller was generally prescribed to patients suffering from some kind of terminal illness and was used as a last resort when the doctors realized that there was no hope left. Richard wanted to change this perspective, and his entire bet was on the four-letter word, “Pain.” Richard knew that the first step was to change the brand image of MS Contin and do something so that people started associating it with life and not death. He called a group of people to understand what kind of associations they had with words like “morphine” and what was the first thought that crossed their minds when they heard the word “pain.” His research validated his own opinions, and he came to know that morphine was mostly associated with death.

Richard wanted to change this perception, and that’s why he came up with the name OxyContin, as he knew that people wouldn’t have any preconceived notions about such a name. He wanted the name to sound positive so that people knew that they could take it not to escape death or pain but to live and stay happy too. Richard was just repackaging his product, making it more lethal, and through it, trying to change the image and perceptions of society. Richard knew that science was not going to help his cause this time, but branding and marketing would. Richard was following a precedent set by Arthur, as back in the day, he had earned huge profits by marketing valium in a similar manner. The concept behind the creation of the blockbuster drug was very simple: Richard knew that if he could meet the patients halfway on their journey from pain to pleasure, then he would be able to make history.

There were no proper tests conducted, no thought put into what could be its ramifications, no safety measures taken, and just like that, OxyContin came onto the market and started wreaking havoc on the lives of the people. Richard Sackler wanted the citizens of the United States to look at pain very differently. He told them that they were wrong if they thought that in life, one needs to endure pain at times. He was giving them a quick fix, but the catch was that it was going to ruin their lives. Richard gathered an army of young girls who were not doing so well financially speaking, showed them how they could afford whatever money had to offer by selling oxycontin, and then asked them to go out there and conquer the world. These naive young girls thought that they were helping mankind, and they went about their business feeling proud of themselves. They didn’t know that they were messengers of death, sent to ruin lives and families.

Richard told people that there was no novelty in bearing pain, and if one could get rid of it, then they would be foolish not to do so. He told doctors that by not prescribing oxycontin, they were actually making their patients go through hell. When this narrative fell flat, money and other lucrative propositions did the talking, but one way or another, Richard got what he wanted. Oxycontin was not created to help people live; it was created for the utterly selfish motives of a ruthless businessman who had no regard for the lives of people and didn’t care if he filled his pockets by killing others. Richard taught us that if you have money to flush, then justice will always be biased toward you. You would always be given a chance to justify your intentions, provided you have billions of dollars to back up that narrative and present a horrible painting as the most staggering piece of art.

Values are fickle, and it is blasphemy to even expect that a person will choose an ethical way when the opposite is so much more lucrative. Richard was a harbinger of death, but he made sure that nobody saw his real face as he put a blindfold with a dollar sign in front of their eyes. We still find it absurd how two words like “blockbuster” and “drug” could be put together, but that’s the irony of our times, and if left unchecked, people like Richard would keep taking advantage of it. The amount of unprecedented damage Richard Sackler ended up having could never have been compensated by just levying a penalty on him, but the man had the entire system supporting him. Though he did receive a lot of backlash for his creation, Richard Sackler was never criminally held liable, and these days, as per reports, he is enjoying life in Florida, away from all the hullabaloo.

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Sushrut Gopesh
Sushrut Gopesh
I came to Mumbai to bring characters to life. I like to dwell in the cinematic world and ponder over philosophical thoughts. I believe in the kind of cinema that not necessarily makes you laugh or cry but moves something inside you.

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