The Sackler Family: Unmasking the Opioid ​Crisis

In the last year, a slew of class action lawsuits has been filed against prominent painkiller distributors by counties and states stricken by the opioid crisis. These suits allege that large pharmaceutical corporations like Purdue, Teva, Johnson & Johnson, and Actavis, among others, knowingly flooded the market with addictive painkillers, creating a nationwide opioid epidemic.

While most of these cases are yet to be litigated, Purdue has already paid a hefty price, agreeing to a $270 million settlement to the state of Oklahoma this past Friday for their role in the state’s worsening addiction and overdose rates. As devastated communities around the country scramble to stop the bleeding, accountability for their pain appears to finally be on the horizon.  

Far too many Americans know, opioid addiction doesn’t discriminate. Regardless of socioeconomic status, support systems, or previous drug use, one overzealous prescription for Oxycontin after a broken arm can be all it takes to completely consume and devastate someone’s life beyond repair. With each overdose death, families and friends are left traumatized, wondering how a prescription for a non-fatal injury could lead to a fatal addiction, and who’s to blame for it.

While the opioid crisis is a nuanced and complex issue, it’s deeply rooted in the pharmaceutical industry’s inherent prioritization of profit over human life. Because the system is designed to reward companies for selling as much product as possible, many pharmaceutical titans act opportunistically, disregarding the dangers of aggressively distributing highly addictive painkillers.

The primary benefactor from the massive uptick in opioid circulation has been Purdue Pharmaceuticals — the manufacturer of Oxycontin that’s owned and operated by the multi-billion-dollar Sackler family.

Dating back to Oxycontin’s release in 1996, the Sacklers have consistently mislead investors, doctors, and patients about the drug’s addictive properties. Despite having scientific data to support Oxycontin’s fatal side effects, members of the Sackler family pushed tenacious marketing campaigns, advocating for its heavy consumption.

Even after a 2007 federal court case in which the company plead guilty to understating the addictive properties of Oxycontin, Purdue continued the drugs mass distribution.

In promotional videos during the late 1990’s and early 2000’s, Purdue continuously downplayed Oxycontin’s risks, often claiming that the drug has less than a 1% addiction rate, a statistic that their own data disproves. In 2000, they ran a TV ad campaign where a licensed doctor looks into the camera and says “We doctors were wrong in thinking that opioids can’t be used long term. They can and they should be.”

But given the gradual rise in opioid addiction and overdoses in the years before this ad was released, it’s unclear how they got away with such a blatant and dangerous lie.

Beyond the Sacklers’ ruthless exploitation of addiction, the family sought to profit from addiction relief. Uncovered in court documents from late January, Purdue had secretly launched a plan called “Project Tango,” to manufacture drugs for recovering opioid addicts. By profiting on both the cause and treatment for addiction, Purdue was in control of a consumer base that risked death without their products. In emails to employees regarding the plan, Dr. Kathe Sackler explained that she wanted the company to become an “end-to-end pain provider,” a quote almost as disgusting as it is ironic.

Between 1996 and now, more than 400,000 American people have died from opioid overdoses, the amount of opioids in circulation has tripled, and the Sacklers have amassed a $14 billion fortune. With each life lost and family ripped apart by addiction, the Sacklers’ value and Purdue’s stock price increased. To put it simply, Purdue’s bottom line is reliant on the suffering of its clients.

For more than two decades, the Sacklers have weathered PR storms by lying, cutting corners, and deflecting blame onto addicts. Every year, tens of thousands of Americans fall victim to drug overdoses from reckless prescriptions while massive corporations like Purdue accrue billions in profit.

For much of the country, more than 20 years of massive opioid circulation has done irreparable damage. The Sackler family have enjoyed anonymity and wealth for far too long, but justice is better served late than never.

-Andrew Gonzales

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