Extent of Sackler family’s role in opioid crisis under scrutiny in new lawsuits

‘If these allegations against the Sacklers are proven to be correct, that could dramatically change the potential reach of where the litigation goes to collect funds on behalf of the cities and states that are so desperately trying to get money to deal with the opioid crisis’

Donal Trump asks Attorney General Jeff Sessions to bring a major lawsuit against the drug companies on opioid

The Sacklers had a new plan.

It was 2014, and the company the family had controlled for two generations, Purdue Pharma, had been hit with years of investigations and lawsuits over its marketing of the highly addictive opioid painkiller OxyContin, at one point pleading guilty to a federal felony and paying more than $600m (£460m) in criminal and civil penalties.

But as the country’s addiction crisis worsened, the Sacklers spied another business opportunity. They could increase their profits by selling treatments for the very problem their company had helped to create: addiction to opioids.

Details of the effort, named Project Tango, have come to light in lawsuits filed by the attorneys general of Massachusetts and New York.

Together, the cases lay out the extensive involvement of a family that has largely escaped personal legal consequences for Purdue Pharma’s role in an epidemic that has led to hundreds of thousands of overdose deaths in the past two decades.

The filings cite numerous records, emails and other documents showing that members of the family continued to push aggressively to expand the market for OxyContin and other opioids for years after the company admitted in a 2007 plea deal in a federal case that it had misrepresented the drug’s addictive qualities and potential for abuse.

The business potential of adding addiction treatment to the mix was illustrated in internal company charts and diagrams.

“Pain treatment and addiction are naturally linked,” one Project Tango document, included in the New York complaint, said.

It depicted a big blue funnel. The fat end was labelled “pain treatment”; the narrow end was labelled “opioid addiction treatment”.

The company, the document said, could make money at both ends of the funnel as an “end-to-end pain provider”.

Dr Kathe Sackler, one of the eight family members sitting on Purdue’s board, instructed employees to devote “immediate attention” to the effort, according to an email included in the Massachusetts filing.

The two lawsuits are part of a burst of recent litigation that has taken aim at the Sacklers, a far-flung billionaire family that has a network of trusts and companies in the United States and abroad.

Their philanthropic gifts have built namesake wings housing the Temple of Dendur at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York and oriental antiquities at the Louvre in Paris, as well as a library at the University of Oxford and a scientific institute at Columbia University.

In addition to New York and Massachusetts, Connecticut, Rhode Island and Utah have filed suits against members of the family.

Last month, a coalition of more than 500 counties, cities and Native American tribes named the Sacklers in a case in the Southern District of New York, bringing the family into a bundle of 1,600 opioids cases being overseen by a federal court judge in Cleveland.

(The various legal claims also identify many other manufacturers, distributors and pharmacy chains as bearing responsibility for the epidemic.)

Calling the Shots

The suits are not only an effort to get at the Sacklers’ personal fortunes – estimated by Forbes to be $13bn – but to expose the extent to which the Sacklers themselves have been calling the shots.

“If these allegations against the Sacklers are proven to be correct, that could dramatically change the potential reach of where the litigation goes to collect funds on behalf of the cities and states that are so desperately trying to get money to deal with the opioid crisis,” said Adam Zimmerman, an expert on complex litigation at Loyola Law School in Los Angeles.

In a joint statement to The New York Times, representatives of the eight Sackler family members named as defendants in the New York and Massachusetts cases said the lawsuits were “filled with claims that are demonstrably false and unsupportable by the actual facts”.

The statement also contended that the claims would be refuted by the family’s response this week to the Massachusetts lawsuit.

Regarding Project Tango, a separate statement from some of the Sacklers named in the suits said “no board member proposed Tango, or authored any documents in support of it”.

A central concern of the investigations and legal cases against Purdue Pharma over the years, including the 2007 federal investigation, has been whether the company, its executives and owners were aware in the late 1990s that OxyContin was being abused.

The new lawsuits are notable for the detail they provide about the family’s own continued push to sell opioids in more recent years, as the opioid epidemic became a full-blown national crisis.

In 2009, two years after the federal guilty plea, Mortimer DA Sackler, a board member, demanded to know why the company was not selling more opioids, email traffic cited by Massachusetts prosecutors showed.

In 2011, as states looked for ways to curb opioid prescriptions, family members peppered the sales staff with questions about how to expand the market for the drugs.

Mortimer asked if they could sell a generic version of OxyContin in order to “capture more cost sensitive patients”, according to one email.

Support free-thinking journalism and attend Independent events

Kathe, his half sister, suggested studying patients who had switched to OxyContin to see if they could find patterns that could help them win new customers, according to court filings in Massachusetts.

The family’s statement said they were just acting as responsible board members, raising questions about “business issues that were highly relevant to doctors and patients”.

It was Arthur Sackler, a psychiatrist and pharmaceutical marketing guru who helped pioneer the infomercial, who started the family business dynasty.

In 1952, he and his two younger brothers, Mortimer and Raymond (who were also psychiatrists and who have since died), bought a small company called Purdue Frederick.

The sprawling family today is hardly monolithic. Arthur’s branch has not been involved in Purdue for many years, and one of his children, Elizabeth A Sackler, has called Purdue Pharma’s role in the opioid crisis “morally abhorrent”.

The lawsuits brought by the attorneys general of New York and Massachusetts, Letitia James and Maura Healey, named eight Sackler family members: Kathe, Mortimer, Richard, Jonathan and Ilene Sackler Lefcourt – children of either Mortimer or Raymond Sackler – along with Theresa Sackler, the elder Mortimer’s widow; Beverly Sackler, Raymond’s widow; and David Sackler, a grandson of Raymond.

200,000 Deaths From Opioids

Since OxyContin came on the market, more than 200,000 Americans have died of overdoses related to prescription opioids.

As reports of overdoses grew, Richard Sackler urged the company to blame the patients.

“We have to hammer on abusers in every way possible,” he wrote in a 2001 email disclosed in documents filed in the Massachusetts case. “They are the culprits and the problem. They are reckless criminals.”

That year, after a federal prosecutor highlighted 59 OxyContin-related deaths in one state, Richard Sackler wrote: “This is not too bad. It could have been far worse.”

In recent years, the Sacklers and their companies have been developing products for opioid and overdose treatment on various tracks.

Last year, Richard Sackler was awarded a patent for a version of buprenorphine, a drug that blocks opioid receptors, administered by mouth in a thin film. In March, the FDA fast tracked the company’s application for an injectable drug for emergency treatment of overdoses.

Purdue has said it is taking charitable steps to curb opioid addiction, and last year donated $3.4m to a nonprofit developing a nasal spray that uses the drug naloxone to treat opioid overdoses.

But the funnel that Purdue once described is full, and overflowing at both ends.

David Sackler spent a reported $22.5m on a Bel Air mansion last year. Mortimer’s Amagansett spread has been featured in Vogue. Theresa Sackler was made a dame and is a trustee of the Victoria and Albert Museum in London.

Last week, three Democratic senators from states hit hard by the opioid epidemic, Edward J Markey of Massachusetts, Sheldon Whitehouse of Rhode Island and Joe Manchin of West Virginia, sent a letter to Purdue, insisting that it make a more formal commitment not to make money from the treatments.

“Indeed,” they wrote, “it is a maxim of the common law in this country that no one should be allowed to profit from his own wrongdoing.”

The New York Times

Join our new commenting forum

Join thought-provoking conversations, follow other Independent readers and see their replies

View comments