J.D. Vance has a Big Pharma problem

The U.S. Senate candidate, who founded an anti-opioid non-profit, has several close ties to Purdue Pharma

By Jon Skolnik

Staff Writer

Published August 20, 2022 4:35AM (EDT)

J.D. Vance, a Republican candidate for U.S. Senate in Ohio, speaks during a campaign rally at The Trout Club on April 30, 2022 in Newark, Ohio. (Drew Angerer/Getty Images)
J.D. Vance, a Republican candidate for U.S. Senate in Ohio, speaks during a campaign rally at The Trout Club on April 30, 2022 in Newark, Ohio. (Drew Angerer/Getty Images)

J.D. Vance, the billionaire-backed U.S. Senate candidate in Ohio, has routinely positioned himself as an anti-opioid China-hawk, promising to rein in Big Pharma and bring jobs back to the U.S. But in recent weeks it has been revealed that Vance, a Trump-backed author, worked for a white shoe law firm that represented multiple Chinese companies and lobbied for Purdue Pharma, the maker of OxyContin. Vance then hired an American Enterprise Institute (AEI) resident who cited Purdue-funded studies to downplay the role overprescribing painkillers plays in the opioid crisis as the addiction specialist to Ohio's Appalachian region for his nonprofit, "Our Ohio Renewal."

The apparent contradiction, first reported by Politico, stems from a "vulnerability analysis" posted online by Protect Ohio Values (POV), the Super PAC through which Vance has raised millions of dollars for his Senate campaign. Because campaign finance law bars any candidates from communicating with their associated Super PACs, POV appears to have posted a trove of polling data, strategic documents, and opposition research on a low-profile Medium account for Vance to reference, detailing potential weak spots in his competitors' campaigns as well as his own. 

Vance's vulnerability analysis reveals that the lawyer-turned-author, who founded a non-profit dedicated to curbing the opioid epidemic, had at one point worked for law firm Sidley Austin LLP in Washington, D.C. During Vance's time there, the firm's lobbying arm was working on behalf of Purdue Pharma, which pleaded guilty in 2020 to criminal charges and faced penalties of roughly $8.3 billion. During that same time, Sidley Austin also reportedly represented "a Chinese real estate company" and lobbied Alibaba Group, a massive Chinese e-commerce platform. But as a Senate candidate, Vance has repeatedly called for the U.S. to sever its economic ties with the country, calling globalization a "gravy train" for China. 

"On one side you have people who want to go back to the America Last foreign policy, the weak on China trade policies," as Vance said in a recent Fox News interview. "And on the other side you have me, supported by President Trump, trying to bring back our manufacturing jobs from China."

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The Associated Press (AP) then reported this week that Vance's charity suffered a major conflict of interest when it recruited an AEI resident who never disclosed Perdue's financial contributions to AEI while favorably citing Perdue-funded studies to argue that prescription painkillers played a significant role in the region's drastic uptick in opioid addiction. According to the AP, Dr. Sally Satel "occasionally shared drafts of the pieces with Purdue officials in advance." And as ProPublica reported in the past, AEI received financial support from Purdue totaling $800,000. 

Vance's past work may prove a problem with other areas besides Big Pharma. He was with Sidley Austin while the firm filed an amicus brief in support of gay marriage back in 2015, while the Supreme Court was ruling on Obergefell v. Hodges. Since then, Vance has taken countless swipes at the LGBTQ+ community. AIn 2020, Vance excoriated the "conservative legal movement" after Supreme Court ruled that gay and trans workers cannot be fired for their gender identity or sexual orientation. 

"The conservative legal movement has accomplished two things: libertarian political economy (enforced by judges) and betrayal of social conservatives and traditionalists," he wrote at the time in a since-deleted tweet. 

Since the beginning of his campaign, numerous critics have also called out Vance's funding as problematic. Vance has repeatedly blasted Big Tech, claiming that the industry systematically censors conservative voices. But the Republican's chief benefactor is Peter Thiel, a prominent tech billionaire responsible for co-founding PayPal, Palantir Technologies, and Founders Fund, through which he was one of the first investors in Facebook.  

By Jon Skolnik

Jon Skolnik is a staff writer at Salon. His work has appeared in Current Affairs, The Baffler, and The New York Daily News.

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