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1600 Lawsuits Reveal Extent of Sackler Family Deception in Opioid Crisis

Arthur Sackler (Photo by Smithsonian's Freer and Sackler Galleries )
Arthur Sackler (Photo by Smithsonian's Freer and Sackler Galleries )

“This lawsuit contains detailed allegations about the Sackler family and their attempt to hide the vast fortunes they collected at the expense of actual lives.”

In the late 1990s and early 2000s, doctors began to prescribe large amounts of opioid painkillers, which not only increased the number of people legally prescribed to the medication, but also the quantity of opiates on the black market. As a growing number of people became addicted to opioids, heroin and fentanyl dealers were able to capitalize on surging demand for their drugs.

By 2014, the deceptive and immoral tactics opioid manufacturers used to proliferate their drugs were understood, with guilty pleas and over $600 million in criminal penalties enacted on those deemed responsible for causing the crisis. One pharmaceutical company and its owners attracted the majority of public attention: Purdue Pharmaceutical and the eight family members who sat on its board, the Sacklers.

Sackler Family Allegedly Deceived Medical Community

Allegations the Sackler family crafted a multifaceted disinformation campaign to deceive the medical community about the addictive properties of OxyContin had already resulted in hundreds of millions in lawsuits by 2007. But by March 2019, the states of New York, Massachusetts, Connecticut, Rhode Island and Utah filed more suits against the family, joining a coalition of over 500 counties, cities and Native American tribes accumulating to a massive litigation of over 1,600 pending suits against the Sacklers.

Arthur Sackler, a prominent philanthropist, doctor and researcher, was the first of the family to get involved with the sale of pharmaceuticals. While it would be his younger siblings and children who would run Purdue and market OxyContin, Arthur was the one to revolutionize drug sales in the 1960s through his innovative tactics selling Valium, the first 100 million dollar drug. According to Fortune magazine, “Arthur’s philosophy was to sell drugs by lavishing doctors with fancy junkets, expensive dinners and lucrative speaking fees, an approach so effective that the entire industry adopted it.”

Arthur’s descendants would go on to find new methods of cajoling the medical community into prescribing huge amounts of the extremely addictive OxyContin. Recent lawsuits detail accounts of incentivizing doctors to overprescribe OxyContin, such as one Massachusetts physician who “wrote an additional 167 prescriptions for OxyContin after sales representatives increased their visits.” The company also hid the medication’s degree of addictiveness and allegedly encouraged blaming victims as “criminals” and “junkies” when they became hooked.

Purdue Pharmaceutical Continued to Profit from OxyContin

But what has made the most recent wave of lawsuits so explosive is the revelation that Purdue continued to strategize ways to make profits on OxyContin, despite their awareness of patient abuse and the national opioid crisis fueled by their drugs. An April 1, 2019, expose by the New York Times details the tactics of “Project Tango,” a proposed initiative to make money off of selling treatments to the problem they largely created: opioid addiction.

One Project Tango document said “pain treatment and addiction are naturally linked,” detailing how the company could expand profits by being an “end-to-end pain provider.” According to the lawsuit, Purdue staff wrote, “It is an attractive market. Large unmet need for vulnerable, underserved and stigmatized patient population suffering from substance abuse, dependence and addiction.” The Project Tango initiative also predicted that 40 to 60 percent of the patients using Suboxone, an addiction treatment drug, would relapse and take it again, further increasing revenue.

The company never went through with the Project Tango, and the plan was not authored or proposed by a Sackler family member (although at least one family member, Kathe Sackler, reviewed it). Despite Tango’s cancellation, attorney generals involved in the litigation argue these internal communications reveal a criminal degree of callousness in exploiting the national health crisis. And beyond Tango, documents clearly show the company’s expansive efforts to market OxyContin, despite having already plead guilty to misrepresenting the addictive properties of the drug.

Not All of the Sackler Family are Involved in Lawsuits

It is important to note that much of the Sackler family is not involved in the allegations, as only eight family members are included in the lawsuits brought by the attorney generals of New York and Massachusetts. Elizabeth A. Sackler, Arthur’s daughter, called Purdue’s contribution to the crisis “morally abhorrent.” The eight members accused of corporate malfeasance maintain their innocence, saying the legal allegations are “filled with claims that are demonstrably false and unsupportable by the actual facts.” Furthermore, numerous other parties are implicated in the scandal despite the majority of media attention focusing on the family.

The grim accusations targeted at the Sacklers are a particularly egregious example of a broader moral dilemma in American healthcare. The opioid epidemic raises questions regarding the appropriate relationship between drugmakers and physicians, the need for rigorous oversight in drug advertising campaigns and the moral line between profit seeking and intentionally spreading addiction.

Hundreds of thousands of lives have been lost in the opioid crisis, and estimates say hundreds of thousands could die in the coming years. A 2017 study from the White House Council of Economic Advisers estimated a year of the opioid crisis to $500 billion in economic losses. If the Sacklers are proven guilty again, their fortune will be justly used to help underfunded addiction treatment. But as important as justice is, the American public must look beyond the Sackler family and seek to understand the systemic problems that coalesced to enable the opioid epidemic.

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Peter Castagno

Peter Castagno is a freelance writer with a Master’s degree in International Conflict Resolution. He has traveled throughout the Middle East and Latin America to gain firsthand insight in some of the world’s most troubled areas, and he plans on publishing his first book in 2019.

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