Activists gathered outside the Smithsonian Institution’s Arthur M. Sackler Gallery Thursday in Washington, D.C., to protest their acceptance of millions of dollars in philanthropy from the family blamed for igniting the opioid crisis.
Nan Goldin, a photographer who founded the activism group Prescription Addiction Intervention Now (PAIN) after her own battle with addiction, led the protest against the gallery named for the Sackler family, who own OxyContin maker Purdue Pharma. The group convened at the carousel on the National Mall before marching to the Arthur M. Sackler Gallery armed with prescription pill bottles with labels reading OxyContin and Vicodin, reports The Washington Post.
Amid chants of “Shame on Sackler” and “addiction equals profits,” the protesters tossed the pill bottles into a wish-fountain inside the gallery. The activists want to highlight the Sackler family’s aggressive marketing of opioid painkillers in the late 1990s that lead to widespread opioid abuse and more than 200,000 prescription overdose deaths between 1999 and 2016.
“We are here to call out all of the Sacklers,” Goldin said, according to The Washington Post.
The gallery is named for Arthur Sackler, who, along with brother 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 major association that accredits health organizations, funded and distributed educational material beginning in the late 1990s that downplayed the risks of opioids.
“The Sackler brothers built an empire of pain on hundreds of thousands of people,” Goldin said, according to Art News. “For them, addiction equals profits.”
Goldin’s group previously protested at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City in March to excoriate the institution for accepting massive contributions from the Sacklers. Demonstrators entered the Sackler Wing of the museum, which houses the famous Temple of Dendur, and littered the exhibit with prescription pill bottles in protest of the Sackler donations.
OxyContin, which was released in 1996, eventually helped the Sackler family achieve a $13 billion net worth, earning them the 19th slot on Forbes’ annual list of the wealthiest families in the country. Despite their massive wealth, the family has spent nothing publicly on addiction rehab or treatment.
Purdue Pharma denies allegations of complicity in the opioid epidemic and says they are committed to curbing rates of opioid abuse.
“Purdue’s led industry efforts to combat prescription drug abuse which includes collaborating with law enforcement, funding state prescription drug monitoring programs and directing health care professionals to the CDC’s Guideline for Prescribing Opioids for Chronic Pain,” Robert Josephson, the company’s spokesman, told The Washington Post. “In addition, we’ve recently announced educational initiatives aimed at teenagers warning of the dangers of opioids and continue to fund grants to law enforcement to help with accessing naloxone.”
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.
Data released by the National Institute on Drug Abuse on Sept. 7 paints a grim outlook for the future of the drug crisis ravaging American communities.
The study predicts America’s addiction epidemic will continue to deteriorate, pushing drug deaths to an estimated 71,600 in 2017. If the estimates prove accurate, 2017 will be the second year in a row drug deaths surpass U.S. casualties in the Vietnam War.