Opioid Activists Demand Harvard Put ‘People Over Profit’ By Cutting Ties With Family Blamed For The Addiction Epidemic

Steve Birr | Vice Reporter

Activists descended on the Arthur M. Sackler Museum at Harvard University Friday to protest the school’s ties to a family they say made their fortune by deceiving the public over the addictive nature of opioids.

Nan Goldin, a photographer who founded the activism group Prescription Addiction Intervention Now (PAIN) after her own battle with addiction, led roughly 70 activists in the protest, including members of the Opioid Network coalition and students from Harvard Medical School, Boston University and New York University. The group entered the courtyard for Harvard Art Museums at roughly 4 p.m. chanting, “Sacklers lie, people die, fund harm reduction now,” and “people over profit,” reports The Boston Globe.

Goldin and the protesters are calling on the museum to reject all future contributions from the Sackler family, owners of OxyContin maker Purdue Pharma, given their aggressive marketing of opioid painkillers in the late 1990s that helped spark widespread opioid abuse and more than 200,000 prescription overdose deaths between 1999 and 2016.

In the museum courtyard, protesters carried signs reading, “More deaths than the Vietnam war — no more,” and “Oxy kills,” while tossing prescription pill bottles on the floor that said, “OxyContin. Extremely addictive. Will kill. Side effect: death.” During the protest activists staged a “die-in” to represent rampant opioid overdoses across the country. (RELATED: Former Sale’s Rep Accuses OxyContin Maker Of ‘Disturbing’ Marketing Practices Used To Push Pills After Massive Settlement)

“From our vantage point, being in medical school in the thick of the opioid crisis has been a defining experience,” Leo Eisenstein, an organizer of the event and student at Harvard Medical School, told the The Boston Globe. “We’re trying to end the stigma that surround opioid abuse disorder, and to promote the interventions that we know work at saving lives.”

Eisenstein, Goldin and other protesters want the Sacklers to direct their large fortune to things like addiction treatment programs, needle exchanges and funding to first responders throughout the U.S. for naloxone, the opioid overdose reversal drug.

The museum at Harvard is named for Arthur Sackler, who, along with brothers Raymond and Mortimer, bought Purdue in the early 1950s. Arthur is known for pioneering the aggressive marketing campaigns now commonly employed by pharmaceutical companies to maximize their drug sales.

This strategy helped Arthur make Valium the first $100 million drug in the U.S., according to the Medical Advertising Hall of Fame.

Arthur died years before the company rebranded as Purdue Pharma and released OxyContin. However, Mortimer and Raymond lived to see the painkiller become a massive success. The Sacklers’ Purdue, through a partnership with an association that accredits health organizations in the U.S., funded and distributed educational material beginning in the late 1990s that downplayed the risks of opioids.

Purdue’s profits from OxyContin sales topped $1.5 billion by 2001, up from $48 million in 1996. The family’s net worth eventually swelled to roughly $13 billion due to the blockbuster success of OxyContin.

Purdue Pharma denies allegations of complicity in the opioid epidemic and says they are committed to curbing rates of opioid abuse.

“We share Ms. Goldin’s concerns about the prescription and illicit opioid abuse crisis,” a spokesman for Purdue Pharma previously told The New York Times.

Harvard University Museums has not commented on the protest.

Purdue Pharma is facing 26 lawsuits filed by state attorneys general and more than 400 lawsuits from cities and counties across the country. They accuse the company of orchestrating a fraudulent marketing scheme to boost sales of OxyContin that downplayed the risks for addiction from pain medication.

Drug overdoses are now the leading cause of accidental death for Americans under age 50, killing more than 64,000 people in 2016, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

The epidemic is contributing to declining life expectancy in the U.S., officials say. Life expectancy dropped for the second consecutive year in 2016 for the first time since an outbreak of influenza in 1962 and 1963.

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