High-profile news features and potential legal threats have thrust a secretive, opioid-profiteering family into the spotlight.
The Sackler family — known mostly for their philanthropy — amassed a $13 billion fortune through their drug company’s aggressive and deceptive OxyContin sales, that critics say played a major role in initiating the opioid epidemic. The Sacklers’ deep ties to the crisis are slowly being exposed and scrutinized as deaths from prescription painkiller overdoses near 200,000.
The family frequently ignores reporters asking about the revelations and are rarely in the public eye, except to promote their philanthropy.
University of Southern California Associate Director of Public Relations Studies Jennifer Floto told The Daily Caller News Foundation the Sacklers should address the problem directly. “In today’s 24/7 news cycle and instant messaging through social media, silence is not a wise PR strategy,” she said.
“Absent information from the source, people will fill in the silence with what they’ve heard, then that perpetuates,” Floto added. “Our recommendation is almost always to get out ahead of the story and control the messaging rather than letting the people draw their own conclusions from hearsay or mounting news features.”
The Sacklers did not return a request for comment on this story and their drug manufacturer, Purdue Pharma, declined to comment. The family also ignored numerous requests for comment on TheDCNF’s previous investigations and declined to comment on the Esquire and New Yorker articles about their role in the epidemic and the wealth it brought them.
A recent editorial in Tufts University’s newspaper called for the school to revoke an honorary degree given to one Sackler. The college has accepted generous donations from the family and has a graduate school bearing their name. Recent articles in Princeton and Yale universities’ newspapers showed that controversial opioid sales funded the art galleries, colleges and professorships named after the Sacklers.
Several members of Congress also called out the Sacklers in a May letter to the World Health Organization, that warned about “the deceptive and dangerous practices of Mundipharma International — an arm of Purdue Pharmaceuticals.”
Purdue’s website hardly mentions the Sacklers and its list of the board of directors omits eight family members, The New Yorker reported. Esquire similarly pointed out that the Sacklers “are rarely seen” in its article “The Secretive Family Making Billions From The Opioid Crisis.”
The Sacklers’ various charitable foundations are also elusive. Most don’t have websites and TheDCNF’s phone calls to listed numbers often don’t work, go unanswered or are received by people who say they have no association with the family.
“Generally, a strategy to remain silent is offered by legal counsel, not [public relations] experts,” Floto told TheDCNF. “[U]nless their lawyers demand that they remain silent, they will probably be forced to make some sort of comment.”
Purdue has faced thousands of lawsuits, according to The New Yorker. The Sacklers only recently started facing legal threats, despite that eight family members currently sit on the board and at least one living Sackler held several leadership positions.
Mike Moore — Mississippi’s former Democratic attorney general who’s leading a coalition that’s suing the pharmaceutical companies — has expressed interest in naming the family as primary defendants. Moore previously led a coalition that sued tobacco companies, that resulted in a $246 billion settlement.
“We’re looking right now really hard at naming some of [the Sacklers] personally in this lawsuit and if we can come up with enough information, and we have some, that connects them directly to the misdeeds in the 90s and early 2000s,” Moore told the On Point radio program.
Moore noted, for example, that a Purdue doctor sent an email to Sackler family members saying OxyContin was easier to abuse than they thought.
Purdue previously paid $24 million in 2015 to resolve a lawsuit claiming the company misled the public about OxyContin’s addictiveness. A deposition from Richard Sackler, who served as Purdue’s president from 1999 to 2003 before becoming the board’s co-chairman, was kept sealed as part of the settlement.
STAT, a medical news outlet, won a suit to release the deposition, but it remains sealed because of an ongoing appeal Purdue filed.
The New Yorker’s Patrick Radden Keefe spent months unsuccessfully trying to obtain Richard’s testimony.
“The idea that they’re fighting so hard to keep this deposition hidden should tell you something,” Moore told The New Yorker.
Additionally, Purdue and three top executives pleaded guilty in 2007 to downplaying OxyContin’s addictiveness when marketing the drug to doctors and consequently paid nearly $635 million, but no Sacklers were charged.
“Whether all of [the Sacklers] are personally liable or not is a question,” Moore told On Point. “But in my view, they’re morally liable for creating this opioid epidemic, and they absolutely should start doing something about it immediately.”
Neither TheDCNF nor Esquire found that the Sacklers had ever publicly donated to addiction treatment centers, despite their well-known philanthropy. Six nonprofits that received some of the family’s biggest contributions defended the family, while another 38 were seemingly indifferent to the Sacklers’ revenue source, a DCNF investigation previously found.
Yale was among the organizations that defended the Sacklers to TheDCNF. President Peter Salovey recently announced that the university would rename a college named after John C. Calhoun because of his legacy as a white supremacist and a slavery advocate, The New Yorker reported.
“Yet Yale appears to be in no hurry to rename its Raymond and Beverly Sackler Institute for Biological, Physical and Engineering Sciences or its Richard Sackler and Jonathan Sackler Professorship of Internal Medicine,” Keefe wrote. “Perhaps it’s because the Sacklers, unlike the Calhoun family, still have a fortune to give away.”
The Esquire and New Yorker articles listed various beneficiaries that have wings bearing the Sackler name after receiving the family’s opioid-fueled funding, including wings at the Louvre, the Royal Academy and New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art.
The New Yorker described the Met’s Sackler Wing, which houses the ancient Egyptian Temple of Dendur, as a monument “to one of America’s great philanthropic dynasties.” Esquire called the Sackler Courtyard at London’s Victoria and Albert Museum “one of the most glittering places in the developed world.”
The New Yorker also quoted Arthur Sackler, who was the family’s patriarch until his death in 1987: “Leave the world a better place than when you entered it.”
Arthur and his younger brothers, Mortimer and Raymond, bought the company that would become Purdue Pharma in 1952. Each sibling controlled one-third of the company, though Arthur primarily focused on his advertising business.
A New York Times obituary described Arthur emphasized his charitable donations to museums and research institutions, but mentioned Purdue only once. It also ignored a legacy he set for his aggressive Valium advertisements and never discussed his controversial pharmaceutical marketing methods.
“Most of the questionable practices that propelled the pharmaceutical industry into the scourge it is today can be attributed to Arthur Sackler,” former Duke University School of Medicine chair Allen Frances told The New Yorker.
Mortimer and Raymond died in 2010 and 2017, respectively — well after the opioid epidemic was underway. But, like Arthur, The New York Times’ obituaries put more emphasis on the brothers’ philanthropy and included Purdue’s legal troubles farther down in the articles.
Neither obituary showed that Purdue played a prominent role initiating the opioid epidemic.
Controversies surrounding the Sacklers, particularly Arthur, started well before OxyContin’s 1995 Food and Drug Administration approval.
Arthur’s pharmaceutical campaigns appealed to clinicians and placed ads in medical journals that were distributed to doctors’ offices, according to The New Yorker. He also recruited distinguished physicians to endorse his products and cited studies that pharmaceutical companies often sponsored.
A Saturday Review investigative reporter tried contacting doctors whose names appeared on a pharmaceutical ad Arthur created, but found the physicians didn’t exist, according to The New Yorker. Also, one Sackler-owned company paid a top FDA official nearly $300,000 to promote certain drugs.
The New Yorker reported that a memo a Tennessee senator’s staff wrote while investigating the pharmaceutical industry said: “The Sackler empire is a completely integrated operation in that it can devise a new drug in its drug development enterprise, have the drug clinically tested and secure favorable reports on the drug from the various hospitals with which they have connections, conceive the advertising approach and prepare the actual advertising copy with which to promote the drug, have the clinical articles as well as advertising copy published in their own medical journals, [and] prepare and plant articles in newspapers and magazines.”
Arthur’s brothers bought his share of Purdue after his death, and his descendants have tried distancing themselves from the rest of the family. Arthur’s daughter, Elizabeth Sackler, has said she’s never profited from OxyContin sales, but hasn’t discussed her father’s other controversial practices that made his descendants multimillionaires.
Purdue, in fact, enlisted Arthur’s marketing tactics to sell OxyContin.
“The marketing of OxyContin relied on an empirical circularity: the company convinced doctors of the drug’s safety with literature that had been produced by doctors who were paid, or funded, by the company,” The New Yorker’s Keefe wrote.
Additionally, Purdue didn’t conduct studies on OxyContin’s addictiveness, but the Food and Drug Administration approved a label that said the narcotic was safer than rival painkillers because of its time-release system, according to The New Yorker. The FDA official in charge of the approval process joined Purdue a few years later.
Both Esquire and The New Yorker noted how Purdue exploited doctors’ misconception that oxycodone — Oxycontin’s narcotic ingredient — was less potent than morphine, but it can actually be twice as powerful.
The magazines also provided a window into some of the Sacklers’ lives.
Mortimer lived a “flamboyant” life, Keefe reported, and had homes in England, the Swiss Alps and Cap d’Antibes. One of his daughters married a cricket player and lives in a $45 million home.
Another Sackler runs a family investment fund. Others founded nonprofits for various causes. One finances small films, another is a sound artist, and yet another started a production company.
Despite the thoroughly reported controversies and the lives the Sacklers lead because of them, Esquire reported that its uncertain the family will actually face the legal action former Attorney General Moore proposed.
“The Sacklers, though, will likely emerge untouched: Because of a sweeping non-prosecution agreement negotiated during the 2007 settlement, most new criminal litigation against Purdue can only address activity that occurred after that date,” Esquire reported. “Neither Richard nor any other family members have occupied an executive position at the company since 2003.”
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