By Robert Reich
A federal judge is expected to certify Purdue Pharmaceutical’s bankruptcy plan – a $4.5 billion settlement between the company and thousands of state and municipal governments that have sued for damages related to the opioid epidemic. The settlement occurs more than two decades after Purdue began aggressively marketing OxyContin to an unsuspecting public and after more than 500,000 people died in the United States as a result.
Purdue will be bankrupt, but members of the multi-billionaire Sackler family – who were responsible for the decisions that led to these deaths and profited the most from Purdue’s opioid dealings – will gain near-total immunity from future litigation. By the time the settlement is paid out they most likely will be as wealthy as they ever were.
So where does personal responsibility come in?
Arthur M. Sackler made a fortune in the 1980s by being the first to directly market prescription drugs to physicians. Utilizing many of the same direct-marketing techniques, his brothers Mortimer and Raymond and nephews Richard and Jonathan, began pushing OxyContin, which had about 1.5 times the strength of morphine. Richard, while an executive and then president of Purdue Pharma, claimed repeatedly that opioids were not highly addictive. To increase company profits, he urged doctors to prescribe as high doses as were possible, even having Purdue measure its performance in proportion to the strength of the doses it sold despite allegedly knowing that sustained high doses of OxyContin risked addiction. As Paul Hanly, a leading attorney in the case, told the Guardian, “this is essentially a crime family … drug dealers in nice suits and dresses.”
Not just nice suits and dresses. The Sackler family also purchased fawning respectability from universities, medical centers, and museums to which they contributed a fraction of their billions. Even prestigious medical schools ostensibly dedicated to advancing the public’s health fell for the ruse. One example, from the Yale School of Medicine’s magazine in late 2009:
“It would be an understatement to say that philanthropy runs in the family of Richard S. Sackler, M.D., and his brother, Jonathan Sackler. The names of their parents, Raymond and Beverly Sackler, adorn cultural and scientific centers around the world, from the Sackler Galleries at the British Museum to the famed Sackler Wing of New York’s Metropolitan Museum, to the just-launched Raymond and Beverly Sackler Institute for Biological, Physical, and Engineering Sciences at Yale. … In keeping with their family’s long-standing generosity to Yale, the brothers’ respective foundations have now joined forces to donate a $3 million endowment establishing the Richard Sackler and Jonathan Sackler Professorship, expressly intended to be held by those appointed as director of Yale Cancer Center. Richard Sackler said, “My father raised Jon and me to believe that philanthropy is an important part of how we should fill our days.”
In America, shame and honor have become confused partly because institutions that bestow honors often have the ulterior motive of extracting as much money as possible from rich honorees while knowing as little as possible about how these donors obtained their wealth. In return for the donation, honorees are imbued with moral approval.
Richard Sackler and other family members involved in this tragedy deserve to be shamed. Institutions that took their blood money should remove the Sackler name from their centers, professorships, buildings, and pediments. If they won’t be held accountable in a court of law, they must be held accountable at least in the public sphere.