“The Empire of Pain”: Inside the Rise and Fall of the Sackler Family

The billionaire former owners of OxyContin maker Purdue Pharma are set to strike a deal that will massively increase their financial contribution to a US national opioid settlement, a new court filing reveals.

The Sackler family agreed last year to pay $4.325 billion “to resolve private and public claims against the bankrupt maker of OxyContin and to fund opioid relief and education programs,” ABC News reported.

But after eight U.S. states opposed the bankruptcy reorganization plan, the family is now “close to a tentative agreement that provides for ‘substantial additional contributions’ that would be used exclusively for easing the opioid crisis. “, according to a file filed by the mediating judge of the dispute.

“The Empire of Pain”

The Sacklers were once “famous in cultural and academic circles for decades of generous philanthropy to some of the world’s greatest institutions,” The Guardian reported in early 2018, a year and a half before Purdue Pharma filed for bankruptcy.

But a ‘surge of lawsuits’ linked to the source of their immense wealth, the painkiller OxyContin, has seen the ‘sprawling’ transatlantic dynasty descend into ‘squabble’.

Their business empire dates back to 1952, when three brothers – Arthur, Mortimer and Raymond Sackler – bought a small pharmaceutical company, Purdue-Frederick. Raymond and Mortimer ran the medical side of the business, while Arthur, the eldest sibling, ran advertising.

Often described as the patriarch of the Sackler family, Arthur engineered a new way to market medical products by going directly to prominent physicians to endorse Purdue products. This pioneering strategy soon accrued huge profits, some of which Arthur used to become a prominent art collector who donated a series of priceless artifacts to museums around the world.

In 1996, the company, renamed Purdue Pharma, launched what The Guardian described as a “blockbuster” new painkiller.

Like other Purdue products, OxyContin was marketed directly to physicians. But the drug “was stronger than morphine and sparked the opioid crisis that now kills more than 100 people a day in America,” the newspaper said.

The Sacklers’ links to this opioid crisis were explored in empire of pain, a book published last year by award-winning author Patrick Radden Keefe. He told The Times he was drawn to writing about family while researching a separate story about Mexican drug cartels.

Drug gangs had “noticed that Americans addicted to prescription opioids were suddenly having a hard time finding a tube,” he said. The reason, according to Keefe, was that Purdue had made OxyContin “harder to crush and, therefore, harder to snort or dissolve and inject.”

“U.S. sales of the 80mg OxyContin pill fell 25% overnight,” the newspaper reported.

In other words, Keefe said, what was “clear to anyone with their eyes in their head was that 25% of Purdue Pharma’s biggest pill revenue came from the black market.”

Opioid crisis

According to the United States Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), “nearly 500,000 people died from overdoses involving any opioid” between 1999 and 2019. The first wave of deaths in the United States has was triggered by “the increase in opioid prescribing in the 1990s”, followed by a second wave in 2010, “with increases in overdose deaths involving heroin”.

The third wave of deaths was linked to “synthetic opioids, particularly those involving illicitly manufactured fentanyl”.

“The number of drug overdose deaths increased by almost 5% between 2018 and 2019 and has quadrupled since 1999,” the public health agency reported.

Against this backdrop, reports that the Sacklers knowingly marketed a type of drug that has been “linked to more than 500,000 deaths across the country over the past two decades” have sparked national outrage, Al Jazeera said. .

OxyContin on display at a Walgreens pharmacy in Brookline, Massachusetts

Investigations by reporters such as Keefe found the family “abused America’s marketed health care system to aggressively market OxyContin even though they knew it was fueling the opioid crisis,” The Times reported. .

“To persuade doctors to prescribe it and patients to start using it, Purdue offered both free 30-day subscriptions,” the paper continued.

And “as sales of the 80mg tablet skyrocketed, partly due to abuse, they released a 160mg tablet.” The highest dose was “so potent that one pill could kill”.

Widespread use of the drug “has spawned millions of addicts,” The Guardian said, and sparked “a wave of lawsuits alleging continued deception over the safety of OxyContin, which the company previously admitted to mislabeling in a 2007 criminal case”.

Former Mississippi Attorney General Mike Moore, a key litigant in an ongoing case involving Purdue Pharma, told the newspaper that “greed” was the driving factor behind the family’s marketing of the drug.

“The market for OxyContin should have been much, much smaller,” he said. “But they wanted to have a 10 billion dollar drug and they didn’t tell the truth about their product.”

In October 2020, the company reached a settlement worth approximately $8.3 billion, admitting that it “knowingly and intentionally conspired and agreed with others to aid and abet” physicians providing medical medicines “without a legitimate medical purpose”.

As part of the deal, members of the Sackler family agreed to pay an additional $225 million and Purdue Pharma was shut down.

But the agreement did not put an end to the family’s legal troubles. In March 2021, the United States House of Representatives introduced a bill that would prevent the bankruptcy judge hearing the case from granting members of the Sackler family legal immunity during the proceedings.

Philanthropists in disgrace

Having admitted responsibility for their involvement in the opioid epidemic, the family is now facing a backlash over their widespread philanthropic spending.

When journalist Keefe realized the extent of the drug scandal, he wondered if it could be “the same family whose names were in the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York that he had the used to visit when he was a student in Manhattan, and which was also adorned with artistic works”. institutions in Washington and London,” the Times said.

After company founder Arthur started the tradition, the family passed on huge amounts of artwork to collections in countries around the world. And through the Sackler Trust, they’ve donated “over £60million to support charitable pursuits in medical science, health and access to education and the arts. in the UK alone since 2010, according to the association’s website.

“There was a family that had made billions of dollars from the sale of a drug that had such a destructive legacy but seemed untouched by that legacy,” Keefe said. “Looking for the name Sackler on the website of the company they own, I couldn’t find it anywhere.”

The Sacklers used “billanthropy” to cover up their misdeeds, he added.

But since the Purdue Pharma feud erupted, efforts “to strip the Sacklers of the soft power offered by their philanthropic giving” have been launched, ArtNet said.

The National Portrait Gallery in London “turned down a $1.3 million donation” in 2019, and “the South London Gallery, Tate Modern in London, American Museum of Natural History in New York and Jewish Museum Berlin also pledged not to take the family’s money, the art-focused news site reported.

In a statement released after the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York removed the Sackler name from its building in December, the living descendants of Purdue founders Mortimer and Raymond said they had “always been a strong supporter of the Met.” . But “we believe it is in the best interests of the museum and the important mission it serves,” they added.

Keefe told The Times that “there was hope in the art world” that the Sackler scandal would not force similar actions on institutions. “Museums and galleries knew there was an unsavory smell, but they hoped people wouldn’t notice,” he said.

“The problem for them is that people noticed it.”

Having now “shined the spotlight on the arts institutions that have taken their tainted millions,” the reporter predicted that others would drop the Sackler name, the paper said, “even if it means breaking the terms of naming rights contracts. signed with the family.

After all, Keefe added, “can you imagine the Sacklers suing to have their name restored?”

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