The most affecting and enraging moment in Warning: This Drug May Kill You, an documentary about the opioid crisis that airs on HBO Monday, is its opening montage, spliced together from camera-phone footage. Scene after scene shows addicts nodding off, collapsing onto the ground, or being revived by paramedics. In one case, the most heartbreaking, a woman lies motionless on the floor of the toy aisle in a grocery store while a toddler tugs at her arm and wails inconsolably.
The sequence is followed by clips from a 1990s marketing campaign for Purdue Pharma, the manufacturers of OxyContin, in which a doctor, Alan Spanos, professes that doctors were wrong in thinking opioids couldn’t be used long-term, or that they might lead to addiction or even inactivity. “We feel [opioids] should be used much more liberally for people with all sorts of chronic pain,” Spanos says, as the film cuts back to more cellphone clips of addicts zoning out.
The contrast between Spanos’s blithe assurance that opioids—a specific group of drugs used to relieve pain—are perfectly safe and the manifold examples of the destruction the prescription-painkiller epidemic has wreaked since 1999 is infuriating. And it suggests that This Drug May Kill You is going to recount the many ways in which the aggressive marketing of pain medication contributed to the deaths of nearly 183,000 Americans in 16 years. But Perri Peltz’s documentary, instead, focuses on the families living with the aftermath of opioid addiction, which primarily means living with grief. That the stories are all familiar by now—a routine injury or hospital visit leads to a mindbogglingly large prescription for pills, which leads in turn to addiction—doesn’t undermine their poignancy, or the sense of a national crisis that’s spiraled out of control. Still, it may leave you longing for a more muscular indictment of Big Pharma when it comes to what’s been reported as the worst drug crisis in American history.