Sackler family fortune under scrutiny amid opioid lawsuits
A series of lawsuits spurred by the opioid epidemic has thrust one of America’s richest yet little-known families into a spotlight they’ve long sought to avoid.
The Sacklers, owners of the pharmaceutical giant Purdue Pharma LP, have a combined fortune estimated by Forbes at $13 billion.
The lawsuits, including a case brought by the Massachusetts attorney general’s office that produced fresh and deeply unflattering revelations about the family on Thursday, have alleged that the Sacklers boosted their wealth by pushing what they knew to be addictive and deadly painkillers onto doctors and patients while reaping more than $4 billion in opioid profits over the course of a decade.
But before it became the focus of scathing accusations in court papers, the Sackler name was most closely associated with some of the premier cultural and academic institutions in the world.
At the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Sackler Wing houses one of the museum’s jewels: the Temple of Dendur. One Sackler brother, Mortimer, once held birthday party at the museum as an adult, with a cake in the shape of the Great Sphinx but for a particular detail: Its face was a replica of Mortimer’s, according to the New Yorker.
The Sacklers have also gifted a wing at the Louvre; a courtyard at the Victoria & Albert Museum; a center for feminist art at the Brooklyn Museum; and an arts education center at the Guggenheim Museum of Art; and donated to dozens of other institutions, including the National Gallery, the Tate, the Smithsonian and the American Museum of Natural History.
And they have funded scores of educational programs, professorships and medical research programs at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Columbia University, Cornell and Stanford universities and the Yale Cancer Center.
As the family’s alleged role in the opioid crisis has been exposed during litigation, many of these institutions have faced increasing pressure to return their gifts and remove the family name from their facilities.
Purdue Pharma and its family owners secretly pursued a plan to become an “an end-to-end pain provider” by selling both opioids and the drugs to treat opioid addiction, according to the newly unredacted court documents disclosed Thursday. The documents also allege the Sacklers engaged in a decade of deception to push their pharmaceuticals, namely the painkiller OxyContin, on doctors and patients while they knew the highly addictive drugs were resulting in overdoses and deaths.
A spokesman for Purdue, Bob Josephson, said Thursday that the release of the unredacted complaint was “part of a continuing effort to single out Purdue, blame it for the entire opioid crisis, and try the case in the court of public opinion rather than the justice system.”
“Massachusetts seeks to publicly vilify Purdue, its executives, employees and directors while unfairly undermining the important work we have taken to address the opioid addiction crisis by taking out of context snippets from tens of millions of documents and grossly distorting their meaning. The complaint is riddled with demonstrably inaccurate allegations.”
The family came into its fortune through three Sackler brothers: Arthur, Mortimer and Raymond. Now deceased, all were physicians who grew up in Brooklyn. Arthur and Mortimer worked in medical-related advertising, and in 1952, the brothers bought a patent-medicine company called Purdue Frederick.
After Arthur died in 1987, his estate sold his stock options to his brothers, and the company changed its name to Purdue Pharma. In the 1990s, it began developing OxyContin, which the US Food and Drug Administration approved in 1995.
OxyContin went on to balloon the family’s fortunes. It also became known as the root of the prescription opioid crisis in America.
Opioids are a class of pharmaceuticals that include prescription painkillers such as OxyContin, morphine and fentanyl, as well as illicit drugs such as heroin. In 2017, there were 47,600 opioid-linked drug fatalities in the United States — more than the number of deaths linked to breast cancer — according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Eight of the Sacklers are named as defendants in the Massachusetts attorney general’s lawsuit, along with Purdue and nine other people currently or formerly associated with the company.
Purdue’s former chairman and president, Richard Sackler, one of Raymond’s sons, is a particular focus of the lawsuit. It describes him as a micromanager, constantly trying to push profits even as the opioid crisis was well underway.
Sackler went to doctors’ offices with sales reps at times to push sales and sought advertising that was aggressive and positive, even as executives at Purdue were concerned about how he was promoting the drug, according to court filings.
In 2001, the lawsuit says, Sackler disclosed in a confidential email “his solution to the overwhelming evidence of overdose and death: blame and stigmatize people who become addicted to opioids.”
“We have to hammer on the abusers in every way possible,” he wrote, according to the lawsuit. “They are the culprits and the problem. They are reckless criminals.”
Still, other Sacklers have moved beyond the family business. Madeleine Sackler, a granddaughter of Raymond, is a director and producer who has made films about charter schools and prison. Elizabeth Sackler, daughter of Arthur, founded the feminist art center at the Brooklyn Museum and last year she told the New York Times that “the opioid epidemic is a national crisis and Purdue Pharma’s role in it is morally abhorrent to me.”
She has also supported a project by the photographer Nan Goldin, who has said she struggled with an OxyContin addiction, to call attention to the Sacklers’ role in the opioid crisis and encourage museums to strip their name from their buildings and galleries.
Madeleine and Elizabeth Sackler are not defendants in the lawsuit.
In a statement to radio station WBUR in January, Daniel Weiss, president and CEO of the Met, suggested that the museum would revisit the Sacklers’ support.
“The Sackler family has been connected with the Met for more than a half century. The family is a large extended group, and their support of the Met began decades before the opioid crisis,” Weiss said. “The Met is currently engaging in a further review of our detailed gift acceptance policies, and we will have more to report in due course.”