By Christopher Glazek, October 16, 2017, Esquire.com
You’re aware America is under siege, fighting an opioid crisis that has exploded into a public-health emergency.
You’ve heard of OxyContin, the pain medication to which countless patients have become addicted.
But do you know that the company that makes Oxy and reaps the billions of dollars in profits it generates is owned by one family?
The newly installed Sackler Courtyard at London’s Victoria and Albert Museum is one of the most glittering places in the developed world. Eleven thousand white porcelain tiles, inlaid like a shattered backgammon board, cover a surface the size of six tennis courts.
According to the V&A’s director, the regal setting is intended to serve as a “living room for London,” by which he presumably means a living room for Kensington, the museum’s neighborhood, which is among the world’s wealthiest. In late June, Kate Middleton, the Duchess of Cambridge, was summoned to consecrate the courtyard, said to be the earth’s first outdoor space made of porcelain; stepping onto the ceramic expanse, she silently mouthed, “Wow.”
The Sackler Courtyard is the latest addition to an impressive portfolio. There’s the Sackler Wing at New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art, which houses the majestic Temple of Dendur, a sandstone shrine from ancient Egypt; additional Sackler wings at the Louvre and the Royal Academy; stand-alone Sackler museums at Harvard and Peking Universities; and named Sackler galleries at the Smithsonian, the Serpentine, and Oxford’s Ashmolean.
The Guggenheim in New York has a Sackler Center, and the American Museum of Natural History has a Sackler Educational Lab. Members of the family, legendary in museum circles for their pursuit of naming rights, have also underwritten projects of a more modest caliber—a Sackler Staircase at Berlin’s Jewish Museum; a Sackler Escalator at the Tate Modern; a Sackler Crossing in Kew Gardens. A popular species of pink rose is named after a Sackler. So is an asteroid.
The Sackler name is no less prominent among the emerald quads of higher education, where it’s possible to receive degrees from Sackler schools, participate in Sackler colloquiums, take courses from professors with endowed Sackler chairs, and attend annual Sackler lectures on topics such as theoretical astrophysics and human rights.
The Sackler Institute for Nutrition Science supports research on obesity and micronutrient deficiencies. Meanwhile, the Sackler institutes at Cornell, Columbia, McGill, Edinburgh, Glasgow, Sussex, and King’s College London tackle psychobiology, with an emphasis on early childhood development.
The Sacklers’ philanthropy differs from that of civic populists like Andrew Carnegie, who built hundreds of libraries in small towns, and Bill Gates, whose foundation ministers to global masses. Instead, the family has donated its fortune to blue-chip brands, braiding the family name into the patronage network of the world’s most prestigious, well-endowed institutions. The Sackler name is everywhere, evoking automatic reverence; the Sacklers themselves, however, are rarely seen.
The descendants of Mortimer and Raymond Sackler, a pair of psychiatrist brothers from Brooklyn, are members of a billionaire clan with homes scattered across Connecticut, London, Utah, Gstaad, the Hamptons, and, especially, New York City. It was not until 2015 that they were noticed by Forbes, which added them to the list of America’s richest families.
The magazine pegged their wealth, shared among twenty heirs, at a conservative $14 billion. (Descendants of Arthur Sackler, Mortimer and Raymond’s older brother, split off decades ago and are mere multi-millionaires.) To a remarkable degree, those who share in the billions appear to have abided by an oath of omertà: Never comment publicly on the source of the family’s wealth.
That may be because the greatest part of that $14 billion fortune tallied by Forbes came from OxyContin, the narcotic painkiller regarded by many public-health experts as among the most dangerous products ever sold on a mass scale. Since 1996, when the drug was brought to market by Purdue Pharma, the American branch of the Sacklers’ pharmaceutical empire, more than two hundred thousand people in the United States have died from overdoses of OxyContin and other prescription painkillers.
Thousands more have died after starting on a prescription opioid and then switching to a drug with a cheaper street price, such as heroin. Not all of these deaths are related to OxyContin—dozens of other painkillers, including generics, have flooded the market in the past thirty years. Nevertheless, Purdue Pharma was the first to achieve a dominant share of the market for long-acting opioids, accounting for more than half of prescriptions by 2001.
According to the Centers for Disease Control, fifty-three thousand Americans died from opioid overdoses in 2016, more than the thirty-six thousand who died in car crashes in 2015 or the thirty-five thousand who died from gun violence that year. This past July, Donald Trump’s Commission on Combating Drug Addiction and the Opioid Crisis, led by New Jersey governor Chris Christie, declared that opioids were killing roughly 142 Americans each day, a tally vividly described as “September 11th every three weeks.”
The epidemic has also exacted a crushing financial toll: According to a study published by the American Public Health Association, using data from 2013—before the epidemic entered its current, more virulent phase—the total economic burden from opioid use stood at about $80 billion, adding together health costs, criminal-justice costs, and GDP loss from drug-dependent Americans leaving the workforce. Tobacco remains, by a significant multiple, the country’s most lethal product, responsible for some 480,000 deaths per year.
But although billions have been made from tobacco, cars, and firearms, it’s not clear that any of those enterprises has generated a family fortune from a single product that approaches the Sacklers’ haul from OxyContin.
Even so, hardly anyone associates the Sackler name with their company’s lone blockbuster drug. “The Fords, Hewletts, Packards, Johnsons—all those families put their name on their product because they were proud,” said Keith Humphreys, a professor of psychiatry at Stanford University School of Medicine who has written extensively about the opioid crisis. “The Sacklers have hidden their connection to their product. They don’t call it ‘Sackler Pharma.’ They don’t call their pills ‘Sackler pills.’ And when they’re questioned, they say, ‘Well, it’s a privately held firm, we’re a family, we like to keep our privacy, you understand.’ ”
The family’s leaders have pulled off three of the great marketing triumphs of the modern era: The first is selling OxyContin; the second is promoting the Sackler name; and the third is ensuring that, as far as the public is aware, the first and the second have nothing to do with one another.
To the extent that the Sacklers have cultivated a reputation, it’s for being earnest healers, judicious stewards of scientific progress, and connoisseurs of old and beautiful things. Few are aware that during the crucial period of OxyContin’s development and promotion, Sackler family members actively led Purdue’s day-to-day affairs, filling the majority of its board slots and supplying top executives.
By any assessment, the family’s leaders have pulled off three of the great marketing triumphs of the modern era: The first is selling OxyContin; the second is promoting the Sackler name; and the third is ensuring that, as far as the public is aware, the first and the second have nothing to do with one another.
If you head north on I-95 through Stamford, Connecticut, you will spot, on the left, a giant misshapen glass cube. Along the building’s top edge, white lettering spells out ONE STAMFORD FORUM. No markings visible from the highway indicate the presence of the building’s owner and chief occupant, Purdue Pharma.
Originally known as Purdue Frederick, the first iteration of the company was founded in 1892 on New York’s Lower East Side as a peddler of patent medicines. For decades, it sustained itself with sales of Gray’s Glycerine Tonic, a sherry-based liquid of “broad application” marketed as a remedy for everything from anemia to tuberculosis.
The company was purchased in 1952 by Arthur Sackler, thirty-nine, and was run by his brothers, Mortimer, thirty- six, and Raymond, thirty-two. The Sackler brothers came from a family of Jewish immigrants in Flatbush, Brooklyn. Arthur was a headstrong and ambitious provider, setting the tone—and often choosing the path—for his younger brothers. After attending medical school on Arthur’s dime, Mortimer and Raymond followed him to jobs at the Creedmoor psychiatric hospital in Queens.
There, they coauthored more than one hundred studies on the biochemical roots of mental illness. The brothers’ research was promising—they were among the first to identify a link between psychosis and the hormone cortisone—but their findings were mostly ignored by their professional peers, who, in keeping with the era, favored a Freudian model of mental illness.
Concurrent with his psychiatric work, Arthur Sackler made his name in pharmaceutical advertising, which at the time consisted almost exclusively of pitches from so-called “detail men” who sold drugs to doctors door-to-door. Arthur intuited that print ads in medical journals could have a revolutionary effect on pharmaceutical sales, especially given the excitement surrounding the “miracle drugs” of the 1950s—steroids, antibiotics, antihistamines, and psychotropics.
In 1952, the same year that he and his brothers acquired Purdue, Arthur became the first adman to convince The Journal of the American Medical Association, one of the profession’s most august publications, to include a color advertorial brochure.
In the 1960s, Arthur was contracted by Roche to develop an advertising strategy for a new antianxiety medication called Valium. This posed a challenge, because the effects of the medication were nearly indistinguishable from those of Librium, another Roche tranquilizer that was already on the market. Arthur differentiated Valium by audaciously inflating its range of indications. Whereas Librium was sold as a treatment for garden- variety anxiety, Valium was positioned as an elixir for a problem Arthur christened “psychic tension.”
According to his ads, psychic tension, the forebear of today’s “stress,” was the secret culprit behind a host of somatic conditions, including heartburn, gastrointestinal issues, insomnia, and restless-leg syndrome. The campaign was such a success that for a time Valium became America’s most widely prescribed medication—the first to reach more than $100 million in sales. Arthur, whose compensation depended on the volume of pills sold, was richly rewarded, and he later became one of the first inductees into the Medical Advertising Hall of Fame.
As Arthur’s fortune grew, he turned his acquisitive instincts to the art market, quickly amassing the world’s largest private collection of ancient Chinese artifacts. According to a memoir by Marietta Lutze, his second wife, collecting, exhibiting, owning, and donating art fed Arthur’s “driving necessity for prestige and recognition.” Rewarding at first, collecting soon became a mania that took over his life.
“Boxes of artifacts of tremendous value piled up in numerous storage locations,” she wrote, “there was too much to open, too much to appreciate; some objects known only by a packing list.” Under an avalanche of “ritual bronzes and weapons, mirrors and ceramics, inscribed bones and archaic jades,” their lives were “often in chaos.” “Addiction is a curse,” Lutze noted, “be it drugs, women, or collecting.”
When Arthur donated his art and money to museums, he often imposed onerous terms. According to a memoir written by Thomas Hoving, the Met director from 1967 to 1977, when Arthur established the Sackler Gallery at the Metropolitan Museum of Art to house Chinese antiquities, in 1963, he required the museum to collaborate on a byzantine tax-avoidance maneuver.
In accordance with the scheme, the museum first sold Arthur a large quantity of ancient artifacts at the deflated 1920s prices for which they had originally been acquired. Arthur then donated back the artifacts at 1960s prices, in the process taking a tax deduction so hefty that it likely exceeded the value of his initial donation.
Three years later, in connection with another donation, Arthur negotiated an even more unusual arrangement. This time, the Met opened a secret chamber above the museum’s auditorium to provide Arthur with free storage for some five thousand objects from his private collection, relieving him of the substantial burden of fire protection and other insurance costs. (In an email exchange, Jillian Sackler, Arthur’s third wife, called Hoving’s tax-deduction story “fake news.” She also noted that New York’s attorney general conducted an investigation into Arthur’s dealings with the Met and cleared him of wrongdoing.)
In 1974, when Arthur and his brothers made a large gift to the Met—$3.5 million, to erect the Temple of Dendur—they stipulated that all museum signage, catalog entries, and bulletins referring to objects in the newly opened Sackler Wing had to include the names of all three brothers, each followed by “M.D.” (One museum official quipped, “All that was missing was a note of their office hours.”)
Hoving said that the Met hoped that Arthur would eventually donate his collection to the museum, but over time Arthur grew disgruntled over a series of rankling slights. For one, the Temple of Dendur was being rented out for parties, including a dinner for the designer Valentino, which Arthur called “disgusting.” According to Met chronicler Michael Gross, he was also denied that coveted ticket of arrival, a board seat. (Jillian Sackler said it was Arthur who rejected the board seat, after repeated offers by the museum.) In 1982, in a bad breakup with the Met, Arthur donated the best parts of his collection, plus $4 million, to the Smithsonian in Washington, D. C.
Arthur’s younger brothers, Mortimer and Raymond, looked so much alike that when they worked together at Creedmoor, they fooled the staff by pretending to be one another. Their physical similarities did not extend to their personalities, however. Tage Honore, Purdue’s vice-president of discovery of research from 2000 to 2005, described them as “like day and night.” Mortimer, said Honore, was “extroverted—a ‘world man,’ I would call it.” He acquired a reputation as a big-spending, transatlantic playboy, living most of the year in opulent homes in England, Switzerland, and France. (In 1974, he renounced his U. S. citizenship to become a citizen of Austria, which infuriated his patriotic older brother.) Like Arthur, Mortimer became a major museum donor and married three wives over the course of his life.
Mortimer had his own feuds with the Met. On his seventieth birthday, in 1986, the museum agreed to make the Temple of Dendur available to him for a party but refused to allow him to redecorate the ancient shrine: Together with other improvements, Mortimer and his interior designer, flown in from Europe, had hoped to spiff up the temple by adding extra pillars.
Also galling to Mortimer was the sale of naming rights for one of the Sackler Wing’s balconies to a donor from Japan. “They sold it twice,” Mortimer fumed to a reporter from New York magazine. Raymond, the youngest brother, cut a different figure—“a family man,” said Honore. Kind and mild-mannered, he stayed with the same woman his entire life. Lutze concluded that Raymond owed his comparatively serene nature to having missed the worst years of the Depression. “He had summer vacations in camp, which Arthur never had,” she wrote. “The feeling of the two older brothers about the youngest was, ‘Let the kid enjoy himself.’ ”
Raymond led Purdue Frederick as its top executive for several decades, while Mortimer led Napp Pharmaceuticals, the family’s drug company in the UK. (In practice, a family spokesperson said, “the brothers worked closely together leading both companies.”) Arthur, the adman, had no official role in the family’s pharmaceutical operations.
According to Barry Meier’s Pain Killer, a prescient account of the rise of OxyContin published in 2003, Raymond and Mortimer bought Arthur’s share in Purdue from his estate for $22.4 million after he died in 1987. In an email exchange, Arthur’s daughter Elizabeth Sackler, a historian of feminist art who sits on the board of the Brooklyn Museum and supports a variety of progressive causes, emphatically distanced her branch of the family from her cousins’ businesses. “Neither I, nor my siblings, nor my children have ever had ownership in or any benefit whatsoever from Purdue Pharma or OxyContin,” she wrote, while also praising “the breadth of my father’s brilliance and important works.” Jillian, Arthur’s widow, said her husband had died too soon: “His enemies have gotten the last word.”
The Sacklers have been millionaires for decades, but their real money—the painkiller money—is of comparatively recent vintage. The vehicle of that fortune was OxyContin, but its engine, the driving power that made them so many billions, was not so much the drug itself as it was Arthur’s original marketing insight, rehabbed for the era of chronic-pain management. That simple but profitable idea was to take a substance with addictive properties—in Arthur’s case, a benzo; in Raymond and Mortimer’s case, an opioid—and market it as a salve for a vast range of indications.
In the years before it swooped into the pain-management business, Purdue had been a small industry player, specializing in over-the-counter remedies like ear-wax remover and laxatives. Its most successful product, acquired in 1966, was Betadine, a powerful antiseptic purchased in industrial quantities by the U. S. government to prevent infection among wounded soldiers in Vietnam.
The turning point, according to company lore, came in 1972, when a London doctor working for Cicely Saunders, the Florence Nightingale of the modern hospice movement, approached Napp with the idea of creating a timed-release morphine pill. A long-acting morphine pill, the doctor reasoned, would allow dying cancer patients to sleep through the night without an IV.
At the time, treatment with opioids was stigmatized in the United States, owing in part to a heroin epidemic fueled by returning Vietnam veterans. “Opiophobia,” as it came to be called, prevented skittish doctors from treating most patients, including nearly all infants, with strong pain medication of any kind.
In hospice care, though, addiction was not a concern: It didn’t matter whether terminal patients became hooked in their final days. Over the course of the seventies, building on a slow-release technology the company had already developed for an asthma medication, Napp created what came to be known as the “Contin” system. In 1981, Napp introduced a timed-release morphine pill in the UK; six years later, Purdue brought the same drug to market in the U. S. as MS Contin.
“The Sacklers have hidden their connection to their product,” said Keith Humphreys, a professor of psychiatry at Stanford University School of Medicine. “They don’t call it ‘Sackler Pharma.’ They don’t call their pills ‘Sackler pills.’”
MS Contin quickly became the gold standard for pain relief in cancer care. At the same time, a number of clinicians associated with the burgeoning chronic-pain movement started advocating the use of powerful opioids for noncancer conditions like back pain and neuropathic pain, afflictions that at their worst could be debilitating.
In 1986, two doctors from Memorial Sloan Kettering hospital in New York published a fateful article in a medical journal that purported to show, based on a study of thirty-eight patients, that long-term opioid treatment was safe and effective so long as patients had no history of drug abuse. Soon enough, opioid advocates dredged up a letter to the editor published in The New England Journal of Medicine in 1980 that suggested, based on a highly unrepresentative cohort, that the risk of addiction from long-term opioid use was less than 1 percent. Though ultimately disavowed by its author, the letter ended up getting cited in medical journals more than six hundred times.
As the country was reexamining pain, Raymond’s eldest son, Richard Sackler, was searching for new applications for Purdue’s timed-release Contin system. “At all the meetings, that was a constant source of discussion—‘What else can we use the Contin system for?’ ” said Peter Lacouture, a senior director of clinical research at Purdue from 1991 to 2001. “And that’s where Richard would fire some ideas—maybe antibiotics, maybe chemotherapy—he was always out there digging.”
Richard’s spitballing wasn’t idle blather. A trained physician, he treasured his role as a research scientist and appeared as an inventor on dozens of the company’s patents (though not on the patents for OxyContin). In the tradition of his uncle Arthur, Richard was also fascinated by sales messaging. “He was very interested in the commercial side and also very interested in marketing approaches,” said Sally Allen Riddle, Purdue’s former executive director for product management. “He didn’t always wait for the research results.” (A Purdue spokesperson said that Richard “always considered relevant scientific information when making decisions.”)
Perhaps the most private member of a generally secretive family, Richard appears nowhere on Purdue’s website. From public records and conversations with former employees, though, a rough portrait emerges of a testy eccentric with ardent, relentless ambitions. Born in 1945, he holds degrees from Columbia University and NYU Medical School. According to a bio on the website of the Koch Institute for Integrative Cancer Research at MIT, where Richard serves on the advisory board, he started working at Purdue as his father’s assistant at age twenty-six before eventually leading the firm’s R&D division and, separately, its sales and marketing division.
In 1999, while Mortimer and Raymond remained Purdue’s co-CEOs, Richard joined them at the top of the company as president, a position he relinquished in 2003 to become cochairman of the board. The few publicly available pictures of him are generic and sphinxlike—a white guy with a receding hairline. He is one of the few Sacklers to consistently smile for the camera. In a photo on what appears to be his Facebook profile, Richard is wearing a tan suit and a pink tie, his right hand casually scrunched into his pocket, projecting a jaunty charm. Divorced in 2013, he lists his relationship status on the profile as “It’s complicated.”
When Purdue eventually pleaded guilty to felony charges in 2007 for criminally “misbranding” OxyContin, it acknowledged exploiting doctors’ misconceptions about oxycodone’s strength.
Richard’s political contributions have gone mostly to Republicans—including Strom Thurmond and Herman Cain—though at times he has also given to Democrats. (His ex-wife, Beth Sackler, has given almost exclusively to Democrats.) In 2008, he wrote a letter to the editor of The Wall Street Journal denouncing Muslim support for suicide bombing, a concern that seems to persist: Since 2014, his charitable organization, the Richard and Beth Sackler Foundation, has donated to several anti-Muslim groups, including three organizations classified as hate groups by the Southern Poverty Law Center. (The family spokesperson said, “It was never Richard Sackler’s intention to donate to an anti-Muslim or hate group.”) The foundation has also donated to True the Vote, the “voter-fraud watchdog” that was the original source for Donald Trump’s inaccurate claim that three million illegal immigrants voted in the 2016 election.
Former employees describe Richard as a man with an unnerving intelligence, alternately detached and pouncing. In meetings, his face was often glued to his laptop. “This was pre-smartphone days,” said Riddle. “He’d be typing away and you would think he wasn’t even listening, and then all of the sudden his head would pop up and he’d be asking a very pointed question.” He was notorious for peppering subordinates with unexpected, rapid-fire queries, sometimes in the middle of the night. “Richard had the mind of someone who’s going two hundred miles an hour,” said Lacouture. “He could be a little bit disconnected in the way he would communicate. Whether it was on the weekend or a holiday or a Christmas party, you could always expect the unexpected.”
Richard also had an appetite for micromanagement. “I remember one time he mailed out a rambling sales bulletin,” said Shelby Sherman, a Purdue sales rep from 1974 to 1998. “And right in the middle, he put in, ‘If you’re reading this, then you must call my secretary at this number and give her this secret password.’ He wanted to check and see if the reps were reading this shit. We called it ‘Playin’ Passwords.’ ” According to Sherman, Richard started taking a more prominent role in the company during the early 1980s. “The shift was abrupt,” he said. “Raymond was just so nice and down-to-earth and calm and gentle.” When Richard came, “things got a lot harder. Richard really wanted Purdue to be big—I mean really big.”
To effectively capitalize on the chronic-pain movement, Purdue knew it needed to move beyond MS Contin. “Morphine had a stigma,” said Riddle. “People hear the word and say, ‘Wait a minute, I’m not dying or anything.’ ” Aside from its terminal aura, MS Contin had a further handicap: Its patent was set to expire in the late nineties. In a 1990 memo addressed to Richard and other executives, Purdue’s VP of clinical research, Robert Kaiko, suggested that the company work on a pill containing oxycodone, a chemical similar to morphine that was also derived from the opium poppy.
When it came to branding, oxycodone had a key advantage: Although it was 50 percent stronger than morphine, many doctors believed—wrongly—that it was substantially less powerful. They were deceived about its potency in part because oxycodone was widely known as one of the active ingredients in Percocet, a relatively weak opioid- acetaminophen combination that doctors often prescribed for painful injuries. “It really didn’t have the same connotation that morphine did in people’s minds,” said Riddle.
A common malapropism led to further advantage for Purdue. “Some people would call it oxy-codeine” instead of oxycodone, recalled Lacouture. “Codeine is very weak.” When Purdue eventually pleaded guilty to felony charges in 2007 for criminally “misbranding” OxyContin, it acknowledged exploiting doctors’ misconceptions about oxycodone’s strength.
In court documents, the company said it was “well aware of the incorrect view held by many physicians that oxycodone was weaker than morphine” and “did not want to do anything ‘to make physicians think that oxycodone was stronger or equal to morphine’ or to ‘take any steps . . . that would affect the unique position that OxyContin’ ” held among physicians.
Purdue did not merely neglect to clear up confusion about the strength of OxyContin. As the company later admitted, it misleadingly promoted OxyContin as less addictive than older opioids on the market. In this deception, Purdue had a big assist from the FDA, which allowed the company to include an astonishing labeling claim in OxyContin’s package insert: “Delayed absorption, as provided by OxyContin tablets, is believed to reduce the abuse liability of a drug.”
The theory was that addicts would shy away from timed-released drugs, preferring an immediate rush. In practice, OxyContin, which crammed a huge amount of pure narcotic into a single pill, became a lusted-after target for addicts, who quickly discovered that the timed-release mechanism in OxyContin was easy to circumvent—you could simply crush a pill and snort it to get most of the narcotic payload in a single inhalation.
This wasn’t exactly news to the manufacturer: OxyContin’s own packaging warned that consuming broken pills would thwart the timed-release system and subject patients to a potentially fatal overdose. MS Contin had contended with similar vulnerabilities, and as a result commanded a hefty premium on the street. But the “reduced abuse liability” claim that added wings to the sales of OxyContin had not been approved for MS Contin. It was removed from OxyContin in 2001 and would never be approved again for any other opioid.
The year after OxyContin’s release, Curtis Wright, the FDA examiner who approved the pharmaceutical’s original application, quit. After a stint at another pharmaceutical company, he began working for Purdue. In an interview with Esquire, Wright defended his work at the FDA and at Purdue. “At the time, it was believed that extended-release formulations were intrinsically less abusable,” he insisted. “It came as a rather big shock to everybody—the government and Purdue—that people found ways to grind up, chew up, snort, dissolve, and inject the pills.” Preventing abuse, he said, had to be balanced against providing relief to chronic-pain sufferers.
“In the mid-nineties,” he recalled, “the very best pain specialists told the medical community they were not prescribing opioids enough. That was not something generated by Purdue—that was not a secret plan, that was not a plot, that was not a clever marketing ploy. Chronic pain is horrible. In the right circumstances, opioid therapy is nothing short of miraculous; you give people their lives back.” In Wright’s account, the Sacklers were not just great employers, they were great people. “No company in the history of pharmaceuticals,” he said, “has worked harder to try to prevent abuse of their product than Purdue.”
Purdue did not invent the chronic-pain movement, but it used that movement to engineer a crucial shift. Wright is correct that in the nineties patients suffering from chronic pain often received inadequate treatment. But the call for clinical reforms also became a flexible alibi for overly aggressive prescribing practices. By the end of the decade, clinical proponents of opioid treatment, supported by millions in funding from Purdue and other pharmaceutical companies, had organized themselves into advocacy groups with names like the American Pain Society and the American Academy of Pain Medicine. (Purdue also launched its own group, called Partners Against Pain.)
As the decade wore on, these organizations, which critics have characterized as front groups for the pharmaceutical industry, began pressuring health regulators to make pain “the fifth vital sign”—a number, measured on a subjective ten-point scale, to be asked and recorded at every doctor’s visit. As an internal strategy document put it, Purdue’s ambition was to “attach an emotional aspect to noncancer pain” so that doctors would feel pressure to “treat it more seriously and aggressively.” The company rebranded pain relief as a sacred right: a universal narcotic entitlement available not only to the terminally ill but to every American.
The company rebranded pain relief as a sacred right: a universal narcotic entitlement available not only to the terminally ill but to every American. By 2001, annual OxyContin sales had surged past $1 billion.
OxyContin’s sales started out small in 1996, in part because Purdue first focused on the cancer market to gain formulary acceptance from HMOs and state Medicaid programs. Over the next several years, though, the company doubled its sales force to six hundred—equal to the total number of DEA diversion agents employed to combat the sale of prescription drugs on the black market—and began targeting general practitioners, dentists, OB/GYNs, physician assistants, nurses, and residents.
By 2001, annual OxyContin sales had surged past $1 billion. Sales reps were encouraged to downplay addiction risks. “It was sell, sell, sell,” recalled Sherman. “We were directed to lie. Why mince words about it? Greed took hold and overruled everything. They saw that potential for billions of dollars and just went after it.” Flush with cash, Purdue pioneered a high-cost promotion strategy, effectively providing kickbacks—which were legal under American law—to each part of the distribution chain.
Wholesalers got rebates in exchange for keeping OxyContin off prior authorization lists. Pharmacists got refunds on their initial orders. Patients got coupons for thirty- day starter supplies. Academics got grants. Medical journals got millions in advertising. Senators and members of Congress on key committees got donations from Purdue and from members of the Sackler family.
It was doctors, though, who received the most attention. “We used to fly doctors to these ‘seminars,’ ” said Sherman, which were, in practice, “just golf trips to Pebble Beach. It was graft.” Though offering perks and freebies to doctors was hardly uncommon in the industry, it was unprecedented in the marketing of a Schedule II narcotic. For some physicians, the junkets to sunny locales weren’t enough to persuade them to prescribe. To entice the holdouts—a group the company referred to internally as “problem doctors”—the reps would dangle the lure of Purdue’s lucrative speakers’ bureau. “Everybody was automatically approved,” said Sherman. “We would set up these little dinners, and they’d make their little fifteen-minute talk, and they’d get $500.”
Between 1996 and 2001, the number of OxyContin prescriptions in the United States surged from about three hundred thousand to nearly six million, and reports of abuse started to bubble up in places like West Virginia, Florida, and Maine. (Research would later show a direct correlation between prescription volume in an area and rates of abuse and overdose.) Hundreds of doctors were eventually arrested for running pill mills. According to an investigation in the Los Angeles Times, even though Purdue kept an internal list of doctors it suspected of criminal diversion, it didn’t volunteer this information to law enforcement until years later.
As criticism of OxyContin mounted through the aughts, Purdue responded with symbolic concessions while retaining its volume-driven business model. To prevent addicts from forging prescriptions, the company gave doctors tamper-resistant prescription pads; to mollify pharmacists worried about robberies, Purdue offered to replace, free of charge, any stolen drugs; to gather data on drug abuse and diversion, the company launched a national monitoring program called RADARS.
Critics were not impressed. In a letter to Richard Sackler in July 2001, Richard Blumenthal, then Connecticut’s attorney general and now a U. S. senator, called the company’s efforts “cosmetic.” As Blumenthal had deduced, the root problem of the prescription-opioid epidemic was the high volume of prescriptions written for powerful opioids. “It is time for Purdue Pharma to change its practices,” Blumenthal warned Richard, “not just its public-relations strategy.”
It wasn’t just that doctors were writing huge numbers of prescriptions; it was also that the prescriptions were often for extraordinarily high doses. A single dose of Percocet contains between 2.5 and 10mg of oxycodone. OxyContin came in 10-, 20-, 30-, 40-, and 80mg formulations and, for a time, even 160mg. Purdue’s greatest competitive advantage in dominating the pain market, it had determined early on, was that OxyContin lasted twelve hours, enough to sleep through the night.
But for many patients, the drug lasted only six or eight hours, creating a cycle of crash and euphoria that one academic called “a perfect recipe for addiction.” When confronted with complaints about “breakthrough pain”—meaning that the pills weren’t working as long as advertised—Purdue’s sales reps were given strict instructions to tell doctors to strengthen the dose rather than increase dosing frequency.
Sales reps were encouraged to downplay addiction risks. “It was sell, sell, sell,” recalled Sherman. “We were directed to lie. Why mince words about it?”
Over the next several years, dozens of class-action lawsuits were brought against Purdue. Many were dismissed, but in some cases Purdue wrote big checks to avoid going to trial. Several plaintiffs’ lawyers found that the company was willing to go to great lengths to prevent Richard Sackler from having to testify under oath. “They didn’t want him deposed, I can tell you that much,” recalled Marvin Masters, a lawyer who brought a class-action suit against Purdue in the early 2000s in West Virginia. “They were willing to sit down and settle the case to keep from doing that.”
Purdue tried to get Richard removed from the suit, but when that didn’t work, the company settled with the plaintiffs for more than $20 million. Paul Hanly, a New York class-action lawyer who won a large settlement from Purdue in 2007, had a similar recollection. “We were attempting to take Richard Sackler’s deposition,” he said, “around the time that they agreed to a settlement.” (A spokesperson for the company said, “Purdue did not settle any cases to avoid the deposition of Dr. Richard Sackler, or any other individual.”)
When the federal government finally stepped in, in 2007, it extracted historic terms of surrender from the company. Purdue pleaded guilty to felony charges, admitting that it had lied to doctors about OxyContin’s abuse potential. (The technical charge was “misbranding a drug with intent to defraud or mislead.”) Under the agreement, the company paid $600 million in fines and its three top executives at the time—its medical director, general counsel, and Richard’s successor as president—pleaded guilty to misdemeanor charges.
The executives paid $34.5 million out of their own pockets and performed four hundred hours of community service. It was one of the harshest penalties ever imposed on a pharmaceutical company. (In a statement to Esquire, Purdue said that it “abides by the highest ethical standards and legal requirements.” The statement went on: “We want physicians to use their professional judgment, and we were not trying to pressure them.”)
Fifty-three thousand Americans died from opioid overdoses in 2016, more than the thirty-six thousand who died in car crashes in 2015 or the thirty-five thousand who died from gun violence that year.
No Sacklers were named in the 2007 suit. Indeed, the Sackler name appeared nowhere in the plea agreement, even though Richard had been one of the company’s top executives during most of the period covered by the settlement. He did eventually have to give a deposition in 2015, in a case brought by Kentucky’s attorney general. Richard’s testimony—the only known record of a Sackler speaking about the crisis the family’s company helped create—was promptly sealed. (In 2016, STAT, an online magazine owned by Boston Globe Media that covers health and medicine, asked a court in Kentucky to unseal the deposition, which is said to have lasted several hours. STAT won a lower-court ruling in May 2016. As of press time, the matter was before an appeals court.)
In 2010, Purdue executed a breathtaking pivot: Embracing the arguments critics had been making for years about OxyContin’s susceptibility to abuse, the company released a new formulation of the medication that was harder to snort or inject. Purdue seized the occasion to rebrand itself as an industry leader in abuse-deterrent technology.
The change of heart coincided with two developments: First, an increasing number of addicts, unable to afford OxyContin’s high street price, were turning to cheaper alternatives like heroin; second, OxyContin was nearing the end of its patents. Purdue suddenly argued that the drug it had been selling for nearly fifteen years was so prone to abuse that generic manufacturers should not be allowed to copy it.
On April 16, 2013, the day some of the key patents for OxyContin were scheduled to expire, the FDA followed Purdue’s lead, declaring that no generic versions of the original OxyContin formulation could be sold. The company had effectively won several additional years of patent protection for its golden goose.
Opioid withdrawal, which causes aches, vomiting, and restless anxiety, is a gruesome process to experience as an adult. It’s considerably worse for the twenty thousand or so American babies who emerge each year from opioid-soaked wombs. These infants, suddenly cut off from their supply, cry uncontrollably. Their skin is mottled. They cannot fall asleep. Their bodies are shaken by tremors and, in the worst cases, seizures. Bottles of milk leave them distraught, because they cannot maneuver their lips with enough precision to create suction. Treatment comes in the form of drops of morphine pushed from a syringe into the babies’ mouths. Weaning sometimes takes a week but can last as long as twelve. It’s a heartrending, expensive process, typically carried out in the neonatal ICU, where newborns have limited access to their mothers.
But the children of OxyContin, its heirs and legatees, are many and various. The second- and third-generation descendants of Raymond and Mortimer Sackler spend their money in the ways we have come to expect from the not-so-idle rich. Notably, several have made children a focus of their business and philanthropic endeavors.
One Sackler heir helped start an iPhone app called RedRover, which generates ideas for child-friendly activities for urban parents; another runs a child- development center near Central Park; another is a donor to charter-school causes, as well as an investor in an education start-up called AltSchool. Yet another is the founder of Beespace, an “incubator for emerging nonprofits,” which provides resources and mentoring for initiatives like the Malala Fund, which invests in education programs for women in the developing world, and Yoga Foster, whose objective is to bring “accessible, sustainable yoga programs into schools across the country.”
Other Sackler heirs get to do the fun stuff: One helps finance small, interesting films like The Witch; a second married a famous cricket player; a third is a sound artist; a fourth started a production company with Boyd Holbrook, star of the Netflix series Narcos; a fifth founded a small chain of gastropubs in New York called the Smith.
Holding fast to family tradition, Raymond’s and Mortimer’s heirs declined to be interviewed for this article. Instead, through a spokesperson, they put forward two decorated academics who have been on the receiving end of the family’s largesse: Phillip Sharp, the Nobel-prize-winning MIT geneticist, and Herbert Pardes, formerly the dean of faculty at Columbia University’s medical school and CEO of New York-Presbyterian Hospital. Both men effusively praised the Sacklers’ donations to the arts and sciences, marveling at their loyalty to academic excellence.
“Once you were on that exalted list of philanthropic projects,” Pardes told Esquire, “you were there and you were in a position to secure additional philanthropy. It was like a family acquisition.” Pardes called the Sacklers “the nicest, most gentle people you could imagine.” As for the family’s connection to OxyContin, he said that it had never come up as an issue in the faculty lounge or the hospital break room. “I have never heard one inch about that,” he said.
Pardes’s ostrichlike avoidance is not unusual. In 2008, Raymond and his wife donated an undisclosed amount to Yale to start the Raymond and Beverly Sackler Institute for Biological, Physical and Engineering Sciences. Lynne Regan, its current director, told me that neither students nor faculty have ever brought up the OxyContin connection. “Most people don’t know about that,” she said. “I think people are mainly oblivious.” A spokesperson for the university added, “Yale does not vet donors for controversies that may or may not arise.”
In May, a dozen lawmakers in Congress sent a bipartisan letter to the World Health Organization warning that Sackler-owned companies were preparing to flood foreign countries with legal narcotics.
The controversy surrounding OxyContin shows little sign of receding. In 2016, the CDC issued a startling warning: There was no good evidence that opioids were an effective treatment for chronic pain beyond six weeks. There was, on the other hand, an abundance of evidence that long-term treatment with opioids had harmful effects. (A recent paper by Princeton economist Alan Krueger suggests that chronic opioid use may account for more than 20 percent of the decline in American labor-force participation from 1999 to 2015.)
Millions of opioid prescriptions for chronic pain had been written in the preceding two decades, and the CDC was calling into question whether many of them should have been written at all. At least twenty-five government entities, ranging from states to small cities, have recently filed lawsuits against Purdue to recover damages associated with the opioid epidemic.
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. Neither Richard nor any other family members have occupied an executive position at the company since 2003.
The American market for OxyContin is dwindling. According to Purdue, prescriptions fell 33 percent between 2012 and 2016. But while the company’s primary product may be in eclipse in the United States, international markets for pain medications are expanding. According to an investigation last year in the Los Angeles Times, Mundipharma, the Sackler-owned company charged with developing new markets, is employing a suite of familiar tactics in countries like Mexico, Brazil, and China to stoke concern for as-yet-unheralded “silent epidemics” of untreated pain. In Colombia, according to the L.A. Times, the company went so far as to circulate a press release suggesting that 47 percent of the population suffered from chronic pain.
In May, a dozen lawmakers in Congress, inspired by the L.A. Times investigation, sent a bipartisan letter to the World Health Organization warning that Sackler-owned companies were preparing to flood foreign countries with legal narcotics. “Purdue began the opioid crisis that has devastated American communities,” the letter reads. “Today, Mundipharma is using many of the same deceptive and reckless practices to sell OxyContin abroad.” Significantly, the letter calls out the Sackler family by name, leaving no room for the public to wonder about the identities of the people who stood behind Mundipharma.
The final assessment of the Sacklers’ global impact will take years to work out. In some places, though, they have already left their mark. In July, Raymond, the last remaining of the original Sackler brothers, died at ninety-seven. Over the years, he had won a British knighthood, been made an Officer of France’s Légion d’Honneur, and received one of the highest possible honors from the royal house of the Netherlands.
One of his final accolades came in June 2013, when Anthony Monaco, the president of Tufts University, traveled to Purdue Pharma’s headquarters in Stamford to bestow an honorary doctorate. The Sacklers had made a number of transformational donations to the university over the years—endowing, among other things, the Sackler School of Graduate Biomedical Sciences. At Tufts, as at most schools, honorary degrees are traditionally awarded on campus during commencement, but in consideration of Raymond’s advanced age, Monaco trekked to Purdue for a special ceremony.
The audience that day was limited to family members, select university officials, and a scrum of employees. Addressing the crowd of intimates, Monaco praised his benefactor. “It would be impossible to calculate how many lives you have saved, how many scientific fields you have redefined, and how many new physicians, scientists, mathematicians, and engineers are doing important work as a result of your entrepreneurial spirit.” He concluded, “You are a world changer.”