Jessica Heygate
Mar 5, 2024

Publicis employee who lost her parents to opioids calls for advertising reform

Emily Deschamps shares her personal story with Campaign US to highlight the dangers of marketing in sensitive categories in hopes of inspiring change.

Disclaimer: The opinions expressed in this article are those of the interviewee. They do not purport to reflect the opinions or views of Campaign US or Haymarket Media, Inc.

One Publicis Groupe employee only learned of the holding company’s past work marketing opioids when its health division agreed to pay a $350 million settlement for its work with Purdue Pharma in early February.

Publicis Health was first sued by the state of Massachusetts in 2021 for its work deploying “unfair and deceptive marketing schemes” for Purdue Pharma, its client, from 2010 until 2019. A coalition on behalf of every U.S. state and the District of Columbia was investigating similar claims about about the marketing and sale of opioids. Publicis voluntarily settled out of court without any liability.

The legal challenges stemmed from Publicis Health’s work marketing opioids OxyContin, Butrans and Hysingla to prescribers as these medications began to trigger a deadly health crisis across the U.S. Publicis said its settlement “is in no way an admission of wrongdoing or liability.” Still, it agreed to stop accepting client work related to opioid-based controlled substances.

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The settlement forms part of a broader crackdown on opioid marketing practices that contributed to the deaths of nearly 645,000 Americans by 2021. McKinsey, which Publicis Health allegedly worked with to target opioid prescribers, has paid nearly $1 billion in various settlements related to the crisis.

In concert, U.S. regulators began scrutinising healthcare data practices more intensely following the overturn of Roe v. Wade in June 2022, triggering lawsuits against data brokers such as KochavaInMarket MediaX-Mode Social and Outlogic. These suits and Justice Department investigations into Epsilon and WPP’s KBM Group for facilitating elder fraud highlight the societal impacts of data-gathering techniques for marketing.

But for one employee who lost both her parents to the opioid crisis within the timeframe that Publicis Health was working with Purdue, the settlement came too late.

Emily Deschamps joined Publicis Groupe agency Performics in July 2023 after working at IPG’s Matterkind and Omnicom’s Hearts & Science.

Deschamps tells Campaign US she was aware Publicis worked with various pharmaceutical companies when she joined, and has previously worked on healthcare accounts herself. However, she says she did not know that Publicis worked with Purdue or on opioid brands. “I was upset when I read the news because I knew the extensive damage that opioids have caused,” Deschamps says.

On the same day Publicis issued a press release acknowledging the settlement charge, Deschamps shared her personal experience with the opioid epidemic on LinkedIn and asked what the company was going to do for employees such as herself directly affected by the opioid epidemic.

A Publicis Health spokesperson provided a statement reflecting the company’s broad stance on the opioid issue: “The devastating opioid crisis has touched many individuals and families. We believe that fighting it here in the United States requires the collaboration of everyone in our industry, lawmakers, and communities. We are committed to playing our part in that process, which is why we worked to ensure funds will be available quickly to those who need them most by reaching this settlement.”

Below, Deschamps shares her full story with Campaign US in hopes of inspiring change within the advertising industry.

Can you talk about your experience of being a victim of the opioid epidemic?

My parents began using around the time I was born, in 1998, after friends gave them prescription opioid pills. We lived in Lunenburg, Massachusetts. Purdue Pharma began its aggressive sales campaigns to doctors in this decade. For my whole childhood, my parents battled addiction.

As a child, I was often confused about why my parents acted certain ways. Why did they sleep so much? Why were they so grouchy? As I got older, I learned these were symptoms of their battle with opioid withdrawal. One time in early elementary school, my mother had a group meeting at a methadone clinic and she had no one to watch me, so I sat in. My father was upset, because he believed the clinic was not an appropriate place for a child. Looking back, I realize this was just another example of the kind of stress opioids put on family relationships.

From around 10 years old, my relationship with my parents became strained as their addiction got worse, and with it our financial situation. I became resentful and felt embarrassed. I had a hard time relating to my peers, and I had fallen behind in school. My home life was volatile and my parents were obviously distracted. School became my escape plan. When I wasn’t playing catch-up, I was watching travel shows, daydreaming of the day that — if I could just do well enough in school — I could leave and never come back.

Now, as an adult, I feel so guilty for how I treated my parents at that age. I wish I had the empathy then that I have now. There’s nothing I wouldn’t give just to be able to say “I love you” one more time.

By 2013, my paternal grandparents became my guardians. I didn’t see my mother or father for a long time — I was starting high school and life at home was pure chaos. On November 2, 2013, my father passed away after consuming fentanyl-laced heroin. This was at the very start of the fentanyl crisis that went on to cause more than 100,000 deaths per year. We waited for around three months for his toxicology report, making it difficult to sort out his affairs. I remember my father’s funeral. It was the first time I saw my 75-year-old grandfather — a man from a different time and generation — cry.

My mother passed in the early hours of May 11, 2019. I had just gotten home from my spring semester of sophomore year. She had called me on Thursday, May 9, after she got out of rehab again. I was sad I couldn't see her before she went on a trip with her partner, but I said “I love you, have fun.”

My sister called me the next day and said to meet her at the hospital as fast as possible. I remember seeing my mother lying on the bed with medical equipment attached to her. I remember what the room looked like and what it smelled like.

My grandmother raced to get to the hospital before the doctors took my mother off life support. Around 1:00 a.m. she walked into the room and collapsed on top of my mother. I remember her sobs, her agony seeing her first-born lying on the hospital bed. I remember the throbbing pain I felt. It felt like a daze. Not knowing what to say, what to do, but trying to hold in my tears. I remember the lump in my throat burning from trying not to cry so my grandmother could mourn her child without worry. 

What still makes me cry is my grandparents’ visceral reactions to my parents’ passing. I tried to rationalize my circumstances by telling myself it’s natural for parents to die. While I am unfortunate that it happened when I was quite young, it’s a part of life. But no parent should bury their child. No grandparent should have to step up in their twilight years to raise their grandchild alone.

(Left) Emily Deschamps’ parents pictured on their wedding day in August 1989; (Top right) A young Emily and her father; (Bottom right) The last time she saw her mother, March 2019. (Photos used with permission)

I still think about my parents every day. The opioid crisis gave me pain and trauma that isn’t easily forgotten. After therapy, I came to peace that I must live with the effects it had on me and it will never go away.

What drove you to share your story publicly?

I have a hard time talking about my parents, but after seeing the news of Publicis marketing opioids for Purdue during the time in which I lost both my parents, I felt like I needed to be heard.

I’m just one of millions affected by the opioid crisis. I thought about my friends from college whose parents struggle with addiction, and I thought about the likelihood of others at my company having family members affected, having the same pit in their stomach as I did seeing the news, trying to get through the day while reliving the trauma in silence.

I want all advertising executives who work on sensitive accounts such as pharmaceuticals to read this story, so they can understand the human cost of their actions and the damage done for generations. The insurmountable pain one family had, multiplied by the millions of families affected by the opioid crisis.

“The truth might be hard to tell, but it can help bring good into the world. Unfortunately, my parents will never even know who I grew up to be.”
— Emily Deschamps

In the wake of the settlement, what would you like to see happen from the advertising industry at large?

For companies to embrace regulation and not fight government intervention. Companies — especially those in technology and advertising — have shown time and again that they’ll always put profit first, even when people suffer as a result of their actions. We need the government to put stricter guidelines in place to prevent misinformation and deceptive marketing and advertising.

There also needs to be reevaluated of the ethical standards that should apply to biotechnology and pharmaceuticals. To quote a Goldman Sachs report, “Is curing patients a sustainable business model?” We need to revolutionise how we view healthcare. Human lives aren’t a resource to pillage.

In your opinion, is enough being done to compensate victims of the opioid epidemic and prevent further damage from happening in the future?

Absolutely not. There is certainly not enough money going to the states most affected by the epidemic.

Because my parents had a hard time finding work or staying employed, I was able to receive a lot of support from the state. I am lucky to be from Massachusetts; my family was on food stamps and I had free school lunch, healthcare and education support. The costs to the state of helping me, one individual, to succeed was substantial.

On top of this, MassHeath provides methadone clinic treatment and rehab for free or low cost depending on annual income. My parents utilised these resources. During the last year of my mother’s life, she went to rehab twice to try to get clean.

The opioid epidemic is estimated to have cost Massachusetts $15.2 billion in 2017. Of the $350 million settlement Publicis paid for its role, just $8 million went to Massachusetts.

I would like to see companies subsidise government efforts to offer more support to the children of those affected by the opioid epidemic. Every child deserves a chance to succeed like I did, and the financial burden shouldn’t fall on family members who step in to help.

And also to contribute funding to programs to research new ways to combat addiction—because what we’re doing in the U.S. is clearly not working.


Campaign US

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