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Over the last 20 years, U.S. opioid overdose deaths have increased by more than 600%. Every day, about 130 Americans die from an opioid overdose. Right now, you are more likely to die from an accidental opioid overdose than a car accident. And one elite family has become increasingly wealthy as the death toll rises.
The Sackler family are the founders and owners of Purdue Pharma – the company that created OxyContin. The family has vehemently denied any wrongdoing, insisting that the opioid crisis is not their fault. But in the face of lawsuits from 48 states and over 500 cities, counties, and tribes, it’s time for the truth to come out.
It’s time that we uncover the face of evil.
Lies and Corruption
Since 2008, the Sacklers have made at least $4 billion from Purdue, most of it from opioid profits. They are currently worth more than the Rockefellers. But the family members are far from innocent investors. A lawsuit filed in Massachusetts claims that the Sacklers continued to push the most dangerous forms of OxyContin long after the risks were known.
Internal documents from Dr. Richard Sackler paint a nefarious picture of the company’s leadership. He said that the launch of OxyContin would be followed by “a blizzard of prescriptions that will bury the competition.” After the severe risk of addiction and overdose was exposed, Sackler had a simple plan: blame the victims.
“We have to hammer on the abusers in every way possible,” Sackler wrote in a 2001 email. “They are the culprits and the problem. They are reckless criminals.”
You see, opioids were originally intended to treat extreme pain in cancer patients and end-of-life palliative care. Doctors were understandably concerned about the potential for addiction and abuse related to opioids. But the Sacklers realized that bolstering reeducation efforts to remove the “stigma” surrounding opioids could open the prescription floodgates. And so, they did.
The company has actively sponsored “pain management education,” including the American Academy of Pain Medicine, the American Pain Society, and Academy of Integrative Pain Medicine. The latter two have recently shut down operations. They cite lack of industry support and a flood of opioid-related lawsuits as the driving factor.
The company also assembled a massive sales force dedicated to preaching the OxyContin “gospel.” In this twisted religion, chronic pain was “sin” and OxyContin was “the savior.” They proselytized day and night about the scourge of chronic pain, and the safety of opioids. They developed a mantra:
OxyContin is the drug to start with and stay with.”
But as OxyContin sales soared, so did the body count.
The Truth About the Sacklers
Now, the Sacklers would have you believe that their cause is just; they’re simply trying to help those with chronic pain. But the behavior of the company and its founding family seems to be more in line with a false profit than a savior.
First, the Sacklers would have you believe that their drugs are not the biggest problem. They would point to data showing that Purdue was only responsible for 10% of all oxycodone sales in the United States, insisting that they were a small player in the market. But U.S. Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA) data shows that the Sacklers were selling the highest doses of the drug.
Despite selling only 10% of the pills, they sold 27% of the dosage – more than any other company. These higher-dose pills are the most dangerous, as they have higher addiction rates and are more likely to result in an overdose. This is information the Sacklers already know.
Mallinckrodt, one of Purdue’s competitors, sold 39% of all oxycodone pills from 2006-2012. But despite selling nearly 4 times more pills than the Sacklers, they actually sold less milligrams of the dangerous drug. The higher doses are also more valuable on the street, increasing their potential for abuse.
Richard Sackler knew this and wanted to place more emphasis on selling higher dose pills. In a 2008 email uncovered in the Massachusetts lawsuit, he wrote that the company should “measure our performance by strength, giving higher measures to higher strengths an[d] especially the new strengths.”
Meanwhile, the Sacklers wanted you to believe that they were genuinely invested in combating addiction and abuse. In 2018, Richard Sackler received a patent for his new opioid addiction drug, allowing the family to profit by treating an addiction that they fueled in the first place.
The company faces so many lawsuits, that Purdue Pharma is now filing for bankruptcy as a way to protect itself from further trials and settle everything at once. Purdue’s lawyers claim that the settlement would be a good deal for plaintiffs, but emerging evidence shows otherwise.
New York Attorney General Letitia James has discovered over $1 billion in fraudulent wire transfers from Purdue Pharma to the Sackler family. As the family publicly works toward a settlement, they have been working frantically to secure and hide funds from the public.
There could potentially be billions more in hidden assets. The money discovered so far came from 33 subpoenas issued to financial institutions by Attorney General James. Not only does the discovery all but destroy the current settlement attempts, it could lead to criminal charges brought against the Sacklers.
The Sacklers, once known as philanthropists, are quickly becoming pariahs around the world. Many institutions who have previously accepted donations from the Sacklers are now refusing them. The Metropolitan Museum of Art, which has an entire wing named after the Sacklers, has said that it will no longer accept any gifts from the family. Even JPMorgan Chase, who have worked with notable villains like Bernie Madoff, won’t go near them. In May, the company cut ties with Purdue Pharma and the Sacklers, forcing the family to find a new bank to handle their multi-billion-dollar wealth.
But no matter how much evidence is brought against them, they refuse to acknowledge any wrongdoing. Internal documents and secret financial data show that the family has actively contributed to one of the worst health crises of our generation, actively working to confuse doctors, patients, and regulators.
They have become one of the richest families in the world while hundreds of thousands have died. They have lied, cheated, and blamed their victims while launching one of the most aggressive marketing campaigns in pharmaceutical history. They have cash in their pockets and blood on their hands.
But still, they deny any wrongdoing.
Time to Come Clean
This summer, David Sackler sat down with Vanity Fair – against the advice of his family and their advisors – to plead his innocence.
He claimed that changing science was behind the villainization of his family, and that the company did everything it could to keep up. But this was before the fraudulent funds were discovered. This was before pharmaceutical leviathans like Johnson & Johnson were taken down in court as directly responsible for the opioid crisis.
There are many facets to this issue, and many people to blame. Doctors should have been more responsible for asking questions and turning down bribes. Regulators should have seen a problem when rural counties were flooded with the drugs. People selling the pills on the street made it even easier for addicts to feed their addiction.
But there’s no doubt that families like the Sacklers are at the root of this problem. Their greed and lies are directly responsible for tens of thousands of deaths. We’ve seen them try to maneuver around lawsuits by using tactical bankruptcy and hiding assets. We’ve seen them lie about the dangers of opioids even while profiting from the treatments.
The Sacklers are a prime example of what’s wrong with the pharmaceutical industry. They are the reason that doctors, patients, and regulators are kept in the dark as patients are injured and killed by unsafe drugs. The Sacklers illustrate why so many of us are wary of the medical industry.
The Sackler family – from their deceased patriarchs to their youngest members – are stained with the blood of the innocent. And no matter how hard they try, their money cannot absolve them. There is a single path to redemption for this family: repentance.
The Sacklers need to stop making excuses and acknowledge their part in all of this. They need to stop trying to protect their blood money and focus on making amends to their victims.
In his interview with Vanity Fair, David Sackler lamented the day that his 4-year old son returned from nursery school and asked,
Why are my friends telling me that our family’s work is killing people?”
But David can change the world in which his son is raised. He can change the tide and set an example for future generations.
And it all starts with telling the truth.