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US author to give away £10,000 prize cash over role of sponsor in opioid crisis

by Lucy Knight
The Guardian

Author Patrick Keefe

‘Irony’ … the New Yorker writer Patrick Radden Keefe. Photograph: Albert Llop/NurPhoto/Rex/Shutterstock

The American writer Patrick Radden Keefe has said he will give away the £10,000 (approximately $13,000 USD) he was awarded by a book prize whose sponsor helped to sell the opioid painkiller OxyContin.

Radden Keefe’s damning investigative book Empire of Pain deals with the opioid addiction crisis, focusing on the role of the Sackler family. He was one of six authors shortlisted for the prize, sponsored by the consultancy McKinsey, five of whom, including him, each received runner-up awards of £10,000.

Tweeting about the “irony” on Thursday, the New Yorker journalist and author posted a photo of himself at the Financial Times/McKinsey business book of the year 2021 award ceremony at the National Gallery in London, pointing to a sign reading “The Sackler Room”. The Sacklers’ company Purdue Pharma sold the OxyContin painkiller which is said to have fuelled the US’s opioid crisis.

In a further tweet, Keefe went on to write that “if you throw a brick in the London art world, you’ll hit a Sackler room”, because the family were keen supporters of art and made generous donations to many prominent galleries.

What was more ironic than the ceremony being held in a room next to one named after the Sacklers, he continued, was the fact that he had been shortlisted for an award sponsored by McKinsey & Company. The consultancy firm had previously advised the Sacklers and Purdue on how to “turbocharge” sales of OxyContin, and in February agreed to pay nearly $600m in settlement for its role in the opioid crisis.

This “made for some pretty fraught emotions”, said Keefe. “On the one hand, it means a great deal to me to see this book recognised. On the other, I could not take part in the lovely gala dinner and not at least acknowledge the proverbial elephant.”

He has chosen to donate the money he received as a shortlisted author to the charity Odyssey House, which works to help people recover from drug and alcohol abuse.

The writer, who won the Baillie Gifford prize for nonfiction in November, lost out on the business book of the year award to Nicole Perlroth, whose winning book This Is How They Tell Me The World Ends is about the cyber weapons arms race.

Keefe was keen to stress that he believes the jury was “100% independent” and not in any way influenced by the prize’s sponsor.

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