Connecting The Dots Between The Opioid Epidemic And Philanthropy

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The Sackler family is justly famous in one way -- and justly notorious in two others.

Arthur, Raymond, and Mortimer Sackler (and members of their families) have been among the world's greatest contributors to good causes -- particularly in the arts and sciences. The Sackler name is prominently displayed at the Smithsonian, Metropolitan Museum of Art, Guggenheim, Tate, Louvre, and Harvard Museums; at various medical and science facilities at Berkeley, Tufts, MIT, Oxford, King's College, University Of London, and Tel Aviv University; at the beautiful Kew Gardens; and in many other important institutions in the US and abroad.

The Sacklers are on the short list of the world's greatest and most honored philanthropists. Family members have received the very highest awards and titles, bestowed in many different countries, by among many others, the Queen of England.

The great honor that comes from Sackler giving is tainted by the great dishonor in how their fortunes have been accumulated. Sackler notoriety comes from the two unsavory sources of their wealth.

The lesser evil was inventing drug company marketing; the greater evil was pushing opioid prescription painkillers that now kill close to 20,000 people a year in the U.S. alone.

The Sackler fortune is enormous and self-made. Even with all their previous generous philanthropy, the Sackler family still retains a net worth of $13 billion -- more than the much more famous, old money families like the Rockefellers, the Busches, and the Mellons.

Strikingly, none of the Sackler family fortune was inherited. The Sackler brothers all began their careers as psychiatrists, an unpromising profession when it comes to accumulating vast wealth. But the Sacklers were enterprising, energetic, and early on displayed remarkable business savvy. They made their initial fortune by inventing many of the aggressive marketing techniques that turned the pharmaceutical industry into a profit machine. They taught drug companies how to conduct the full court selling of drugs to doctors and how to gear sales pitches directly to consumers.

One can heartily dislike the pharma marketing machine and disapprove of the Sackler role in creating it -- but still recognize it as within moral bounds. It is much harder, however, to justify the Sackler role in creating the prescription opioid epidemic.

In 1952, the Sacklers purchased a small drug company -- Purdue Pharma -- and have since turned it into a giant cash cow. In the past 20 years, the company has generated more than than $35 billion in the U.S. and about an equal amount in other countries.

The star attraction was OxyContin, a time-released, preparation of oxycodone, that was misleadingly marketed as addiction-proof. In a later blog, we will go into detail on all the ways Purdue pushed opioids and created the deadliest drug epidemic in our history. Suffice to say, the company was only marginally less ruthless than the drug cartels and is now responsible for at least twice as many deaths per year.

The Sackler family seeks publicity and fame when it comes to their philanthropy, but keeps a very low profile when it comes to the notoriety of OxyContin gains. Thus far, they have largely succeeded in avoiding blame for the devastating epidemic of prescription opioid addiction that they caused and continue to profit from. This despite the fact that nine family members are currently on the Purdue board. There are encouraging signs, however, that Sackler impunity may soon change.

Richard Sackler has been the most active family member directing Purdue affairs and has left his fingerprints all over the OxyContin disaster. In 1971, shortly after graduating medical school, he began work at Purdue and has held just about every important leadership position in the company -- from directing its research and marketing to serving as president and co-chair of the board.

Of great public interest, Richard Sackler was recently deposed in a lawsuit for the first time -- in regard to Kentucky's claims charging Purdue with continued illegal marketing of OxyContin. It is easy to imagine the questions he must have been asked: What did you know about the addicting impact of OxyContin? When did you know it? What have you done to cause or prevent Purdue's misleading the medical profession and the public? What do your internal company documents show?

Current efforts to make Sackler's testimony public are crucial in strides to make the family accountable for the actions of the company and perhaps might result in the clawing back of some significant portion of their ill-gotten gains.

Sackler's deposition is one of several sealed documents that a Kentucky judge ordered to be released to the public at the request of STAT. Purdue said it will appeal the ruling, meaning the documents will be withheld, pending the outcome of the appeal.

For at least a decade, everyone knew OxyContin was misleadingly marketed and causing great damage. The $600+ million dollar fine levied in 2007 as punishment for Purdue's criminal activity would surely have been a wake up call for its company co-chairman. It is hard to believe that Richard Sackler can offer even a shred of plausible deniability.

If the Sacklers really are philanthropists, and not just seekers of fame, they should want to do the right thing and help those they have hurt.

Purdue is a privately held company and all its profits go to the Sacklers in one form or another. In any fair world, Purdue and the Sacklers should be hit with multibillion dollar fines -- the proceeds devoted to the compensation and rehabilitation of the millions of people they have harmed and to the reimbursement of the states (and their taxpayers) for the enormous public costs occasioned by the opioid epidemic.

It makes no sense to allow the Sacklers free rein to accumulate ever more I'll gotten profits and to launder them with donations to museums and medical centers -- in the service of glorifying and cleansing the Sackler name. The family should be forced to disgorge a significant portion of its fortune to help clean up the opioid mess they created.

If the Sacklers really are philanthropists, and not just seekers of fame, they should want to do the right thing and would come forward now to offer help to those they have harmed.


This article was originally published on Recovery Brands' Pro Talk/Pro Corner.

Allen Frances is a professor emeritus at Duke University and was the chairman of the DSM-IV task force.

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