How the Sackler family built a pharma dynasty and fueled an American calamity
In ‘Empire of Pain,’ Patrick Radden Keefe details the humble Jewish immigrant roots of Purdue Pharmaceuticals, and how it is evading justice despite being behind the opioid crisis
In the 1960s, esteemed psychiatrist/genius ad man Dr. Arthur Sackler cemented his family’s massive fortune when his marketing strategy transformed diazepam, better known as Valium, from just another drug produced by his client Hoffman-La Roche into the top-selling “wonder” drug in the United States between 1968 and 1982.
Though the Jewish-American Sackler, whose parents immigrated to the US from Eastern Europe, initially encountered antisemitism, the wealth that he brought his family helped change all that.
Along with his psychiatrist brothers Mortimer and Raymond, Sackler would see enormous success marketing pharmaceuticals directly to doctors. The family delved into philanthropy in addition to pharma, and the name once snubbed by antisemites soon adorned prestigious educational and cultural institutions, from the Metropolitan Museum of Art to the Louvre.
But as the opioid crisis developed in the United States in later decades, institutions began to distance themselves from the family, some of whom owned the Purdue Pharma company which produced the controversial addictive painkiller OxyContin.
The family’s rise and fall is charted in a bestselling new book, “Empire of Pain: The Secret History of the Sackler Dynasty,” by journalist Patrick Radden Keefe.
“I was intrigued by the prospect of the family having benefited so richly from a drug that helped start a public health crisis,” Keefe told The Times of Israel in a recent phone interview.
Keefe works as a reporter for The New Yorker, and the book grew out of an article he wrote for the magazine about the Sacklers, Purdue Pharma and OxyContin in 2017. At the time, Keefe was investigating illegal heroin brought into the US from Mexico, and he discovered that some Americans were turning to heroin after first abusing prescription painkillers.
That year, the opioid crisis was declared a public health emergency by the Department of Health and Human Services. Between 1999 and 2019, the crisis claimed the lives of almost 500,000 people due to overdoses, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
A lawyer by training, Keefe laments that the Sacklers have been able to retain high-priced attorneys to defend themselves against opioid-related lawsuits, including prominent names from both major political parties — from former Obama attorney general Eric Holder to previous Trump attorney Rudy Giuliani.
Keefe also notes the excesses of a family whose net worth numbers in the billions. “The family, by the second or third generation, is very, very out of touch with reality, as reality is experienced by most people in the world,” he said.
Purdue Pharma is now bankrupt and has twice pleaded guilty to federal criminal charges. Yet the family is still worth $11 billion. Its name remains on many institutions across the world, a list that includes Harvard University, the Smithsonian and even the Sackler School of Medicine at Tel Aviv University.
Keefe worked on his manuscript against the ongoing backdrop of legal battles against the Sacklers, and himself testified in front of a House Oversight Committee earlier this month. During his testimony, Keefe lobbied to have legal loopholes closed that he said help the Sacklers escape significant fallout from Purdue Pharma’s offenses.
Here’s my testimony from yesterday’s congressional hearing on efforts to hold the Sackler family accountable for their role in the opioid crisis. Thanks @OversightDems for inviting me. It was an honor to participate https://t.co/DbCBskGRl5
— Patrick Radden Keefe (@praddenkeefe) June 9, 2021
Unsurprisingly, none of the family spoke with Keefe during the writing of the book. “They chose to deal with me through lawyers, mainly, who were quite menacing,” he said.
He ended up hiring a fact-checker who had helped proofread former US president Barack Obama’s recent memoir. They sent a list of 100 queries for corroboration to the two branches of the family that owned Connecticut-based Purdue Pharma. Expecting detailed answers, Keefe instead received a one-and-a-half-page letter over a month later.
It stated “that they did not like the sound [of the project] and it would not be fair to them,” Keefe recalled. “They did not respond to any of the main specifics in the book itself.”
Keefe also noted a suspicious individual who seemed to be shadowing him outside his home while the author was quarantining during the COVID-19 pandemic. He speculates in the book as to whether this individual was working for the Sacklers.
“Honestly, if anything, it didn’t intimidate me,” Keefe said. “On the contrary, it made me more determined to tell the story.”
Sweeping family saga
In telling the tale, Keefe was interested in presenting a narrative with a wide lens.
“I made a choice, writing the book, not to write just a book on the opioid crisis,” Keefe said. “I was very interested in telling a more sweeping story of three generations of this family.”
The first third of the book is devoted to Arthur Sackler, son of Eastern European Jewish immigrants Isaac and Sophie Sackler. Originally named Abraham Sackler, Arthur was joined by Mortimer and Raymond as the first branch of the family to be born in the US.
“I think the family, for the most part, has been very secular,” Keefe said. “It goes back generations, really, starting with the three brothers. But I also think the story of the Sackler dynasty is impossible to understand without really reckoning with the horrors of antisemitism in the US during that period.”
Jewish quotas kept Mortimer and Raymond Sackler from being accepted into medical school in the US. Instead, they studied in Scotland.
“The family left Europe to come to America in search of better opportunities and within one generation they go back to Europe just to get an education,” Keefe noted.
“I think, maybe particularly for Arthur Sackler, those moments bring a reminder, sometimes in subtle ways, sometimes non-subtle, that no matter how successful they were, they were not part of the club,” Keefe said. “The club would not allow people like him in. I think that really impacted his desire to make his money, put his name on buildings, fight his way into the club, buy his way into the club when necessary. I do think it’s a very important element of the story.”
When the brothers reunited stateside after medical school, they became successful enough to put their once-snubbed name on buildings, including through Arthur Sackler’s vast collection of Asian art. In 1952, the brothers bought a company called Purdue Frederick, and through a separate advertising business, Arthur Sackler marketed several drugs: first Librium, then the far more successful Valium.
“In the story of marketing Librium, then Valium, I thought you saw a certain playbook that would be used subsequently by [Arthur Sackler’s] relatives to launch OxyContin,” Keefe said. “In some ways, it was a playbook that Arthur Sackler invented.”
As Keefe described it, Sackler and his vast sales force sought to persuade not only consumers but also specifically the physicians who wrote prescriptions.
The salesforce relied upon “medical literature often sponsored by the company that was maybe a little scientifically dubious, overstating the therapeutic benefits of the drug and understating the downside,” Keefe said. “Valium actually addicted many people. There was no real discussion about that, no warning about that… I think, in a way, it happened with OxyContin as well.” Except, Keefe added, “OxyContin is a much more deadly drug than Valium.”
OxyContin was rolled out by Purdue Pharma in the mid-1990s, almost a decade after Arthur Sackler’s death in 1987. By then, the family had grown much wealthier, and it would continue to do so through its new painkiller.
Yet, as early as 2001 there were concerns about OxyContin, including from journalist Barry Meier, who began investigating the issue for The New York Times.
“Barry Meier was a hero in this story,” Keefe said. “He really sounded the alarm in 2001, 2002, 2003 — 20 years ago.” If more people had listened to Meier, he said, possibly tens of thousands of Americans might be alive today.
The closing years of the past decade sparked a new interest. Keefe published his New Yorker article in 2017, and a year later, Meier published a book about the Sacklers and OxyContin titled “Pain Killer.” Also in 2018, Massachusetts attorney general Maura Healey filed a precedent-setting lawsuit against the Sacklers themselves, not the company they owned. Meanwhile, artist Nan Goldin started leading opioid-themed protests in some of the museums that bore the Sackler name, from the Louvre to the Met.
“I think Nan Goldin is a hero,” Keefe said, “and [Maura Healey] is on a very righteous quest for justice, accountability and truth.”
Regarding the question of whether the family will be brought to justice, Keefe said, “I think it depends on how you define ‘justice.’ If what you mean is some form of legal accountability or some admission of wrongdoing, some form of penance, I think the answer is no. I think it’s unlikely they ever will be held to account in that respect.”
Yet, he added, “I think the family was able to outrun truth for a long time. I think truth is now catching up with them. In terms of the family legacy, there has been a reckoning.”
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