The Slatest

Massachusetts Attorney General Accuses Sackler Family of Misleading the Public About Opioids in Ruthless Chase of Profit

The words "The Sackler Courtyard" can be seen on a low wall in front of white plaza.
The Sackler Courtyard at the Victoria and Albert Museum in London.
AFP Contributor/Getty Images

A memo filed by the Massachusetts attorney general contends that the Sackler family, which owns OxyContin maker Purdue Pharma, has long directed an effort by the company to push doctors to prescribe heavier doses of the painkiller and keep their patients on it for longer, even as it knew of the dangers and addictive nature of opioids.

According to the memo, the family and Purdue Pharma not only misled doctors and the public about the dangers of the drug, but one Sackler family member even proposed placing the blame on overdose victims for the opioid crisis. “We have to hammer on abusers in every way possible,” Richard Sackler wrote in an email in 2001, when he was president of the company. “They are the culprits and the problem. They are reckless criminals.”

The Tuesday filing is the first to name the Sackler family directly and marks the first time details have been released from the company’s internal documents. The memo depicts a number of family members as being aware of—and sometimes directing—the marketing push around the drug.

OxyContin, released in the 1990s, helped usher in the opioid crisis, which in 2017 alone killed 72,000 Americans, according to the Associated Press. At the time of the drug’s launch, Richard Sackler promised a crowd that the drug would be “followed by a blizzard of prescriptions that will bury the competition,” according to court documents. Purdue Pharma protests the filing’s depiction of its role in the opioid crisis, arguing both that the attorney general had cherry-picked emails and documents and that the crisis should be blamed more on heroin and fentanyl, which are responsible for more overdose deaths.

According to the filing, Richard Sackler himself urged sales representatives to recommend doctors prescribe high doses of OxyContin to increase profits and had the company provide misleading information about the addictive nature of the drug. The attorney general asserts that the Sacklers and Purdue Pharma never put a stop to the deception and continued to illegally market it. According to the New York Times, when a federal prosecutor reported that there had been 59 overdose deaths in one state in 2001, Richard Sackler wrote to company officials, “This is not too bad. It could have been far worse.”

In 2007, several Purdue executives pleaded guilty to federal criminal charges that they falsely claimed that OxyContin was less addictive than other painkillers. The company paid out $600 million in fines. But according to the filing, Richard Sackler continued to press his staff to push the drug more aggressively as recently as 2011, when the opioid crisis was in full swing, and had the company double down on its efforts to push the painkiller in Massachusetts.

The Sackler family is one of the wealthiest in the country, and it has been a major donor to the the New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art and the Tate Modern in London, lending the name to installations and buildings. The name also can be found in medical schools and research hospitals. There have been calls for these institutions to cast off the name from their buildings and reject the family’s donations, but Purdue Pharma has long depicted the family as not involved in the regular operations of the company, and the family’s name has remained in those places of prominence.

A statement from Purdue Pharma emphasized that OxyContin is approved by the FDA and prescribed by doctors, and it complained that the filing “is littered with biased and inaccurate characterizations of these documents and individual defendants, often highlighting potential courses of action that were ultimately rejected by the company.” It also said the company is working to cut down on the abuse of prescription painkillers. Last year, according to the AP, Purdue stopped its efforts to market OxyContin.

Correction, Jan. 17, 2019: This post wrongly associated a donation to the Smithsonian Institution with the Sackler family members involved in Purdue Pharma’s sale of OxyContin. Arthur M. Sackler contributed to the Smithsonian for the creation of a museum of Asian art but was not involved in Purdue Pharma’s sale of opioids. He died in 1987.