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Some members of Sackler family under fire over ties to opioids

Sackler family members and the opioid crisis
Some members of Sackler family under fire over ties to opioids 13:09

"Do you have any idea," asked "48 Hours" correspondent Erin Moriarty, "how many buildings bear the Sackler name?"

"You know, I have no idea," replied New Yorker staff writer Patrick Radden Keefe. "There are so many all over the country, all over the world."

Like the Sackler Wing at New York's Metropolitan Museum of Art; the Smithsonian's Arthur M. Sackler Gallery; even Westminster Abbey in London. For decades, the Sackler family name – synonymous with philanthropy – has been seen everywhere they put their money.

The Sackler name may be everywhere, said Keefe, but it's oddly missing from the company that made them rich. "Well, this, to me, was the paradox that started this whole project," he said. "This is a fortune that the vast bulk of it comes from this company, Purdue Pharma, that doesn't have their name."

Purdue Pharma, privately owned by some members of the Sackler family, is the drug maker that developed and marketed the powerful painkiller OxyContin. The company has been blamed for helping to spark the opioid epidemic that killed nearly half a million people in this country over the past two decades.

And yet, for much of that time, the Sacklers – one of the wealthiest families in America (as compiled by Forbes magazine) – have largely avoided public scrutiny for the part they allegedly played.

They are now the subject of Keefe's new book: "Empire of Pain: The Secret History of the Sackler Dynasty" (Doubleday).


"Isaac Sackler, the original patriarch, he kind of loses his shirt in the Depression," said Keefe. "And he summons his three sons to him, and he says, 'The most important thing is the good family name, that good family name. If you lose a fortune, you can always make another. But if you lose your good name, you can never get it back.'"

All three brothers – Mortimer, Raymond, and Arthur – became doctors. But it was the oldest, Arthur, who first made his name (and his fortune) as a pioneering ad man.

"Arthur becomes kind of the Don Draper of medical advertising," Keefe said. "He's this amazing visionary pioneer who devises all these new ways to sell drugs, and specifically to sell drugs to doctors."

Moriarty asked, "You write in the book that the first Sackler fortune was built on Valium. He didn't create this drug, he's just advertising?"

"Just advertising. But when he negotiated his deal to do this, he said, 'Look, I want to have an escalating series of bonuses based on how much of the drug you sell.' Valium becomes the most profitable drug in the world at the time, and so, it makes him fabulously wealthy."

By this time, the Sackler brothers had also purchased a small pharmaceutical company, Purdue Frederick. Decades later, Raymond and Mortimer formed Purdue Pharma.

In 1996, the company began selling the groundbreaking new painkiller OxyContin. The pill's special coating allowed for the slow release of large doses of oxycodone, a powerful opiate that is twice as strong as morphine. Though that fact was disclosed on the FDA-approved insert, Purdue later admitted that it knew many doctors mistakenly believed morphine was stronger.

Keefe said, "And there are emails where senior executives at the company say, 'We need to be careful not to correct this mistaken assumption by the doctors. We need to let them keep thinking that oxycodone is actually weaker, and not stronger.'"

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One of the executives on those emails: Raymond Sackler's son, Richard, who would later become president of Purdue.

"And so, Purdue then decides, we're gonna market this new drug not just for cancer pain, but for all kinds of chronic pain," Keefe said. "It just changes the whole game. I mean, this is a drug that very quickly became a $1 billion drug. Sales were doubling, or more than doubling, every year."

But it soon became apparent that some users were abusing OxyContin.

In 2001 a CBS News "48 Hours" investigation was aired, five years after Purdue began selling the drug. The program included doctors who complained about Purdue's sales force. As one physician described one salesman, "He was overly aggressive."

Tactics then-Purdue spokesman David Haddox defended. When asked if Purdue's sales people were "overly aggressive," Haddox replied, "I don't think so. I think they are right on the money. … The monster in this country is the epidemic of untreated pain."

Opioid Lawsuit-New Mexico
Toby Talbot/AP

In recent years, deaths from illicit opioids have risen dramatically, and thousands of cities and states have filed lawsuits against Purdue and the other drug makers who marketed prescription opioid painkillers, arguing their products created a generation of addicts who turned to heroin and fentanyl as prescription painkillers became more difficult to obtain – a charge drug companies vigorously deny.

But while Purdue's name was always closely connected to the crisis, missing from most media coverage was the name of the family that owns it.

In 2018 Massachusetts Attorney General Maura Healey was the first to name specific members of the Sackler family in her lawsuit, saying, "Eight people in a single family made the choices that caused much of the opioid epidemic."

Moriarty asked Healey, "Is there any way that these family members were unaware of what was happening?"

"Impossible for them to be unaware," Healey replied. "They were in the board room. They own the company. We have emails and memos that show the direct control that they exercised over sales and marketing. One of the Sackler family members went so far as to want to get in the car with Purdue sales reps and drive around to visit doctors' offices to try to sell more Oxy."

Family members, however, deny any wrongdoing, and say nothing in those documents supports the allegations.

And Purdue did spend millions of dollars reformulating OxyContin to make it harder to abuse, and points to the fact that the drug made up less than four percent of the prescription opioid market.

But after the Massachusetts lawsuit, the family became publicly known for something more than just its generosity to the arts. A campaign to remove the name from museum walls was led by celebrated photographer Nan Goldin. "I feel like they live in their museums, and that's where I would get their ear," she said.

Goldin's anger is personal. Decades after beating a heroin addiction, she said she was prescribed OxyContin after a wrist injury, and became addicted.

"The basis of addiction is that terror of withdrawal," Goldin said. "I mean, it's unbearable. It's like your skin is ripped off."

Now healthy after rehab, Goldin wants the art world to stop putting Sacklers on pedestals. In fact, several museums have announced they would no longer accept the Sacklers' donations.

Only a few institutions have removed the name.

Moriarty asked Goldin, "Why does it matter whether or not the Sackler name is on a museum wall?"

"They should be a place that celebrates art, not celebrates billionaires who made their money on the bodies of other people," she replied.

But, it's important to note that not every Sackler – nor every building that bears the name – has a direct tie to the opioid crisis.

Arthur Sackler, the brother who revolutionized the marketing of pharmaceuticals, died in 1987. His heirs sold their stake in Purdue shortly after. OxyContin wasn't developed until nearly a decade later.

As for the descendants of the other two brothers (who declined our request for an interview), since 2008, Purdue has paid them more than $10 billion.

David Sackler (Raymond's grandson) and Dr. Kathe Sackler (Mortimer's daughter), both former Purdue Board members, recently went public to defend the family's actions, and its name, testifying remotely at a Congressional hearing last December by the House Committee on Oversight and Reform.

David Sackler said, "What you've heard from the press about the Sacklers is almost certainly wrong, and highly distorted."

When Chairwoman Carolyn Maloney (D-N.Y.) asked, "Will you apologize for the role you played in the opioid crisis," Kathe Sackler replied, "I have struggled with that question. I have asked myself over many years. I have tried to figure out, is there anything that I could have done differently? … I have to say, there is nothing that I can find that I would have done differently, based on what I believed and understood then."

They heard no sympathy from the members of the committee.

Rep. James Comer (R-Ky.) said, "We don't agree on a lot in this committee … the actions of your family, I think, we all agree, are sickening."

Rep. Jim Cooper (D-Tenn.) said, "I'm not sure that I'm aware of any family in America that's more evil than yours."

David Sackler responded, "While I believe I conducted myself legally and ethically, and I believe the full record will demonstrate that, I still feel absolutely terrible that a product created to help, and [which] has helped so many people, has also been associated with death and addiction."

Last fall, as part of a deal with the Department of Justice, Purdue pleaded guilty to felonies related to the selling of OxyContin. But how much the family who owns Purdue will be held accountable is still up in the air.

Purdue Pharma is now in bankruptcy. Last month, the company proposed a settlement: the Sackler family would relinquish control and pay $4.2 billion over the next decade to the states and the others suing Purdue to help treat addiction.

In return, the Sacklers would be protected from future civil litigation.

Moriarty said, "The fact the family is going to give $4.2 billion sounds like a lot of money. That seems like they're really giving up something."

Keefe said, "You're absolutely right; $4.2 billion is a lot of money. It doesn't matter how you scope it, it's a lot of money. And there is a raging opioid crisis going on. So, you end up in this situation in which there's this fire – and I would argue the Sacklers helped start the fire – and they're saying, 'I'll tell you what: I've got a hose here, would you like it? 'Cause you can have it, but only if you promise not to look any further into whether or not I started the fire.'"

The Sackler family has taken issue with writer Patrick Radden Keefe's past reporting, and disputes the premise of his book.

As for Keefe, he believes that cities and states suing Purdue will likely take the deal – and the Sacklers' $4.2 billion.

But as the Sackler name disappears, Keefe can't help remembering the advice that the patriarch Isaac Sackler once gave his sons: "That, to me, is the overarching irony of this whole story. The family will more than likely keep the bulk of its fortune, but lose the good name, I think, for good."

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Story produced by Mark Hudspeth and Sara Kugel. Editor: Remington Korper. 

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