The Sackler family, a sprawling and now feuding transatlantic dynasty, is famous in cultural and academic circles for decades of generous philanthropy towards some of the world’s leading institutions, from Yale University to the Guggenheim Museum in the US and the Serpentine Gallery to the Royal Academy in Britain.
But what’s less well known, though increasingly being exposed, is that much of their wealth comes from one product – OxyContin, the blockbuster prescription painkiller first launched in 1996.
The pill is stronger than morphine and sparked the opioid crisis that’s now killingmore than 100 people a day in America and has spawned millions of addicts. It’s also attracted a wave of lawsuits alleging ongoing deception about the safety of OxyContin, which the company had previously admitted misbranding in a 2007 criminal case.
Two branches of the family control Purdue Pharma, which makes OxyContin but, unlike their company, none of the Sacklers are personally being sued over it.
Lawyers hope that might be about to change, however, as litigation engulfs the company, and the effects may end up rippling all the way to the society circles and venerable arts and science institutions where the billionaires spend the proceeds. What some call philanthropy, others, such as Stanford University ethics professor Rob Reich, call “reputation laundering”.
“The Sacklers have not been named as defendants but I know several of the firms working on these cases are doing a really deep dive to make that happen, working very hard to break through the corporate veil so they can name the owners,” Mike Moore, the former Mississippi attorney general told the Guardian. He’s one of the key attorneys in litigation brought by several states against Purdueand other pharmaceutical firms, collectively nicknamed Big Pharma.
“Greed is the main thing. The market for OxyContin should have been much, much smaller, but they wanted to have a $10bn drug and they didn’t tell the truth about their product,” he added.
In 2007 Purdue Pharma pleaded guilty to federal felony charges that the company misled regulators, doctors and patients about OxyContin’s risk of addiction and abuse. Sackler family members were not charged.
The family-owned Purdue, based in Connecticut, and with an arm in the UK called Mundipharma developing other markets for opioids, denies all wrongdoing amid the current litigation. But there are signs that a giant court settlement may be around the corner between Big Pharma and city, county and state authorities from across the US that are all suing. Mississippi lawyer Mike Moore is confident there will be a deal to help pay for a catastrophe that the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimate is costing the US $78bn-plus a year.
Moore helped secure the historic $246bn so-called Big Tobacco settlement against cigarette companies in 1997 and the $20bn settlement against BP for the 2010 Deepwater Horizon oil spill.
He declined to name the law firms or discuss which family members might be targeted in any expansion of the pharmaceutical cases. And the OxyContin heirs don’t want to talk about any of it. It is known that seven members of the Sackler family are on the board of Purdue, but the company will not disclose who owns shares or how much individuals are worth. That only fuels the question: who are the Sacklers?
They are far from a harmonious clan. Their distinctive name is displayed at Harvard, the Smithsonian and the Metropolitan Museum, and behind research facilities and professorships at MIT, Columbia, Cornell, Stanford and others in the US. Sackler is also inscribed on British cultural altars such as the Serpentine Sackler Gallery, the new forecourt at the Victoria & Albert Museum, a bridge at Kew Gardens, the Tate, the National Gallery, the Royal Opera House and behind research centers at several UK universities.
But fortunes and reputations are not shared evenly between relatives of the three deceased Brooklyn brothers, Arthur, Mortimer and Raymond Sackler, who trained as psychiatrists, worked as pharmaceutical researchers and grew a tiny company, which specialised in laxatives when Arthur bought it in 1952, into a pharmaceutical empire.
The mere multi-millionaire branch of the family related to eldest brother Arthur is estranged from the other two multi-billionaire branches.
Arthur’s third wife, British-born, New York-based Jillian Sackler, who was made a Dame by the Queen for philanthropy, said she and his descendants haven’t benefited from OxyContin, which was invented years after Arthur’s 1987 death in New York.
Shortly after Arthur’s death, his estate sold his stock options on a third of Purdue for $22.4m to Mortimer and Raymond, who controlled the company.
Speaking out for the first time about the fissure between Arthur’s branch of the family and his brothers’ branches, Jillian Sackler told the Guardian: “I think he would not have approved of the widespread sale of OxyContin.”
She went on to say she didn’t know if the drug was the “root cause” of the opioid crisis but agreed it was “one important factor” and that Purdue Pharma’s “advertising was misleading”.
She said that the other branches of the family “have a moral duty to help make this right and to atone for any mistakes made” in relation to the opioid crisis.
Purdue under Mortimer and Raymond, and Raymond’s son Richard, sold OxyContin in the US as a revolutionary, slow-release narcotic, rooted in the opium poppy but approved by regulators as safe.
Via aggressive marketing to doctors and misleading use of research, according to the US government, Purdue promoted OxyContin to block out chronic pain. But it was addictive even when taken as instructed and was easily abused, as was their late 80s forerunner drug MS Contin.
“The regulators were asleep at the switch,” said lawyer Mike Moore.
Forbes magazine estimates that a core group of 20 Sacklers in the Mortimer and Raymond branches of the family are collectively worth $13bn.
Arthur’s daughter Elizabeth Sackler, 69, benefactor of an eponymous gallery at the Brooklyn Museum, called her aunts’ and cousins’ $13bn fortune “morally abhorrent”.
Raymond Sackler, who died in 2017 aged 97, was the youngest of the three brothers, but his branch of the family has been the most active in Purdue.
Made an honorary knight by the Queen, his widow Beverly was on the board of Purdue until recently and their two sons, Richard, 72, and Jonathan, 62, and Richard’s son David, 37, are on the board now. Richard and Jonathan fund a medicine professorship at Yale University, and give to other medical research.
Tax records for 2016 show that a foundation named after Richard and his ex-wife Beth donated to right-wing think tanks, including $50,000 to the neo-conservative, fervently pro-Israel Foundation for Defense of Democracies.
David and his wife Joss are fixtures in New York charity and fashion circles and Raymond’s branch of the family has long been fond of skiing in Utah.
Jonathan Sackler advocates for conservative education reform and charter schools. His daughter, Madeleine Sackler, 34, is a film-maker and released a documentary highlighting charter schools, called The Lottery. The New Yorker just wrote about Madeleine’s forthcoming feature film shot in prison, only briefly reporting her dismissal of any moral conflict over her wealth. The same magazine dissected the Sacklers’ OxyContin fortune last October, shortly after a groundbreaking investigation by Esquire and work by Forbes began to make the connection.
Mortimer Sackler, the middle brother, died in 2010 in Gstaad, at 93. He was the europhile of the family and also an honorary knight. He and his third wife Theresa, who’s on the board of Purdue, lived in London, with additional houses in Berkshire, Switzerland and the French Riviera. She’s also English-born and a dame, and old images show them at charity events and the tennis.
Mortimer’s daughter Sophie married England cricketer Jamie Dalrymple at the family’s Berkshire estate, Rooksnest, in 2009 and Samantha married a coffee entrepreneur.
Mortimer Junior, 46, lives in New York and Vogue gushes about his and wife Jacqueline’s property in Amagansett. Ilene, 71, and Kathe, 69, are board members of Purdue and also arts and science benefactors, in the family tradition.
‘We are deeply troubled’
Exactly how wealthy each Sackler is or how their income and investments flow is private.
Art photographer Nan Goldin, who is recovering from a dangerous opioid dependency, has called on the Oxy heirs to divert funds into rehab facilities and other efforts, saying that she doesn’t know “how they live with themselves”.
Goldin is among critics that claim Arthur’s side of the family, too, is not “off the hook” about their wealth. Arthur developed marketing tactics that were later adapted by Purdue to push OxyContin. And an advertising firm he owned made a fortune out of vigorously marketing another firm’s sedative – Valium, which became too widely prescribed, though is vastly less risky than opioids.
Jillian Sackler pushed back, however, saying any “assertion that Arthur’s marketing of Valium makes him culpable with his brothers is simply wrong”.
Hans Ulrich Obrist, artistic director at the Serpentine, said in a statement: “The Serpentine, along with many cultural and educational institutions across the world, has benefited from the philanthropy of the Sackler Foundation,” and went on to say that such funding helped the galleries remain free of charge and able to reach “the widest possible audiences.”
Purdue Pharma sent statements saying, in part: “We are deeply troubled by the prescription and illicit opioid abuse crisis” and described altering its marketing and putting resources into easing the crisis.
This hasn’t stopped the lawsuits. New York City sued Purdue and other companies last month, claiming $500m and accusing Big Pharma of “deceptively peddling these dangerous drugs and hooking millions”.
And Purdue announced it halved its sales force last week and will no longer send out field representatives to promote OxyContin to health professionals.
Proceedings are now under way before a federal judge in Ohio, where more than 300 city and county federal cases against Purdue and others are bundled together. Fifteen states are suing separately and lawyer Mike Moore predicts that figure will reach 25 by summer, with all the others investigating.
Purdue has settled cases before on a relatively small scale, and in the 2007 prosecution was forced to pay $600m to the federal government. But current legal action eclipses what has gone before.
“Purdue Pharma could go bankrupt,” said Moore.
Pivotal in reaching Big Tobacco’s settlement were whistleblowers and a smaller cigarette company turning state’s evidence, Moore said, something he’s not counting out regarding Big Pharma.
Meanwhile, he said: “Let’s say someone gets a conscience inside the Sackler family and says ‘let’s fix this’. They could do that right now.”