The opioid epidemic represents the most profound public health crisis in recent times. The statistics are staggering. More than 200,000 Americans have perished from opioid related causes over the past five years. Now, the crisis has spread to regions like Germany and France. Cause of Death: Unknown tracks the sinister scourge of opioid addiction, examines the human tolls it has taken on communities across the American landscape, and exposes the culprits who are behind its deadly spread.
The film opens in the opioid capital of the United States - West Virginia - a state that contends with the highest overdose rate in the country. We see a woman place flowers on the graves of friends who have perished from addiction. She wasn't successful in escaping the disease herself. Her addiction resulted from a doctor's repeated prescriptions for Oxycontin, and soon she turned to selling the drugs to support her growing habit. It's possible that she is partially responsible for some of her friends' deaths.
The film shifts perspective from the deeply personal stories of opioid abusers to the massive industries that profit most from their misery. It's particularly effective in portraying the shameful collaboration between members of the medical community and the opioid manufacturer Purdue. The company encouraged doctors to prescribe more potent doses, lavished them with high-paying speaking gigs, and effectively incentivized the business of addiction. The film features insights from a corporate whistleblower who further details their shadowy tactics in shattering detail.
Their day of reckoning might be at hand. More than a thousand communities are filing a class action lawsuit against the largest drug distributors to the tune of 500 billion dollars a year. The objective is to hit these companies where they're most vulnerable: their deep pocketbooks. Participants agree that this is the only way to enact meaningful policy change. "Money drives it all," explains one of the case attorneys.
In its final act, Cause of Death: Unknown travels outside the United States to witness more personal stories of loss and devastation, and the steps being taken to curb a seemingly global apocalypse of addiction.