The opioid crisis isn’t just the Sacklers’ fault – and making Purdue Pharma pay isn’t enough on its own to fix the pharmaceutical industry’s deeper problems

You may have heard of the Sackler family and the role that they and their privately held company, Purdue Pharma, played in the opioid crisis. One TV series depicting the family as a villainous clan has earned 14 Emmy nominations. Another is in the works.

Purdue is infamous for its hard-sell marketing of its powerful, long-acting opioid OxyContin. Among its troubling tactics: co-opting legitimate medical organizations to spread messages overstating the drug’s effectiveness and understating its addiction risks. Sales boomed, making its owners fabulously wealthy and building what journalist Patrick Radden Keefe memorably calls an “empire of pain.”

Purdue’s profit-seeking became a model for other drugmakers, distributors and pharmacy chains. The ensuing sales frenzy led to skyrocketing rates of opioid addiction and related harms by the early 2000s – perhaps the worst pharmaceutical crisis in U.S. history.

So when Purdue Pharma’s bankruptcy settlement was revised in March 2022 to make the family pay US$6 billion, mostly to local and state governments, the news was greeted with at least some satisfaction. Although it looks as though no members of that family will go to prison, the people often regarded as the saga’s primary villains were at least paying a price for their misdeeds.

But as a historian of addictive pharmaceuticals, I see a danger in associating the opioid crisis too closely with the Sackler family. My research has shown that the crisis isn’t an aberration caused by the individual misdeeds of bad actors. Punishing people who broke the law, and making business leaders pay to repair the harms they caused, surely helps. Yet broad reforms are also needed to prevent similar disasters from happening again.

Who are ‘the Sacklers’?

Despite the many individuals and companies involved, the Sacklers became the public face of the opioid crisis. In part this acknowledged their status as pioneers: They were the first to hypermarket strong opioids, and they led the pack in blaming the resulting catastrophe on consumers who became addicted to those prescription painkillers.

But who are they? Their story began with Arthur, Mortimer and Raymond Sackler, three brothers who were all doctors and made a collective fortune in medical marketing. They acquired what was then called Purdue Frederick Co. in 1952.

After Arthur died in 1987, Mortimer and Raymond bought their brother’s stake in the company from his family for $22 million. For that reason, Arthur Sackler’s heirs aren’t involved in opioid-related litigation that’s on track to be resolved through Purdue’s bankruptcy settlement.

“The Sacklers” I refer to here – and when you read about them elsewhere – are Mortimer and Raymond and their heirs who benefited from Purdue’s profit machine, many of whom worked there, served on its board – or both.

Richard Sackler ran the company for years and subsequently became a micromanaging board member. His cousin Kathe Sackler, another former Purdue executive, repeatedly claimed that OxyContin was her idea, Patrick Radden Keefe has reported. Pinpointing exactly how much money they collectively extracted from Purdue is impossible, but in 2021 those two branches of the Sackler family were estimated to hold about $11 billion in assets.

Pop culture villainy

The Sacklers used their profits to protect the family’s reputation through lavish charitable donations to museums like the Guggenheim and the Louvre, and several universities – including Tufts and Yale.

Their philanthropy produced an aura of respectability but also made them highly visible. Eventually journalists connected the dots, leading to a cottage industry of books and media coverage of the opioid crisis casting the Sacklers as the bad guys responsible for historic levels of addiction and overdose.

The Sacklers-as-comic-book-villains story is on full display in actor Michael Stuhlbarg’s Emmy-nominated performance as a remarkably creepy Richard Sackler in the Hulu series “Dopesick,” based on Beth Macy’s book by the same name.

Viewers can probably expect similar fare from Michael Broderick, who will play Richard Sackler in “Painkiller,” an upcoming Netflix limited series about how the opioid crisis began.

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