Special Briefing: Can the Opioid Crisis-Linked Sackler Family Buy Goodwill?

Family and friends who have lost loved ones to OxyContin and opioid overdoses leave pill bottles in protest outside the headquarters of Purdue Pharma, which is owned by the Sackler family, in Stamford, Conn. The Sackler family’s ties to OxyContin and the painkiller’s role in the deadly opioid crisis are bringing the Sacklers a new kind of attention and complicating their philanthropic legacy.

Source Jessica Hill/AP

Why you should care

Because big money brings big problems.

This is an OZY Special Briefing, an extension of the Presidential Daily Brief. The Special Briefing tells you what you need to know about an important issue, individual or story that is making news. Each one serves up an interesting selection of facts, opinions, images and videos in order to catch you up and vault you ahead.


What’s happening? With the opioid crisis claiming tens of thousands of American lives each year — nearly 49,000 in 2017 alone — attention has increasingly turned to the company critics say helped start it all: Purdue Pharma. The firm is widely blamed for pushing doctors to overprescribe its product, OxyContin, for years. But behind the pharmaceutical giant is a generous family, the Sacklers, who’ve cemented themselves as high-level donors at some of the world’s leading cultural and educational institutions. Until recently, they’ve mostly flown under the radar. But amid ongoing civic and legal efforts to connect the family to Purdue Pharma’s worst transgressions, their philanthropy is coming under intense scrutiny. 

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Stamford Police stand outside the headquarters of Purdue Pharma, which is owned by the Sackler family, in Stamford, Conn. The Sackler family came under scrutiny when a legal filing in Massachusetts gave detailed allegations of how family members and other Purdue Pharma executives sought to push prescriptions for the drug OxyContin and downplay its addiction risks.

Source Jessica Hill/AP

Why does it matter? Some observers say the opioid industry may soon face its Big Tobacco moment, a time of reckoning that forces the pharmaceutical industry, through costly lawsuits, to admit its role in fueling a widespread public health crisis. Whether or not that happens, the organizations that have benefitted from the Sackler name are still likely to face increasing pressure to cut their ties with the family — and maybe even reconsider the very nature of philanthropy. 


Big family, big money. One of America’s wealthiest families, the original Sackler entrepreneurs were three brothers — Arthur, Raymond and Mortimer, the New York-born sons of Jewish immigrants — who began building their pharmaceutical empire in the 1950s. Today, their estimated fortune of around $13 billion comes largely from the Connecticut-based company, which developed OxyContin in the mid-1990s. But they’re a philanthropic bunch: Throughout the years, they’ve dished out major donations to leading schools like Yale and Cornell, as well as top cultural institutions around the world such as the Guggenheim, the Metropolitan Museum of Art and the Louvre, among many others. While details about family members’ lives remained scant, their generosity was very public.

Lifting the veil. But recent media investigations and legal actions against Purdue Pharma and the Sacklers have laid bare the allegedly illicit means by which the family gathered its wealth. Most prominently, an ongoing suit first brought by the attorney general of Massachusetts last year — and amended in January — has accused them of aggressively marketing OxyContin while being fully aware of its dangers. Describing an apparent strategy to divert attention away from the drug’s addictive quality, ex-president Richard Sackler allegedly wrote in 2001: “We have to hammer on the abusers in every way possible. They are the culprits and the problem.” Other details recently unearthed cast the Sacklers as shrewd managers with an unrelenting drive to maximize profits. But times have changed: Now facing more than 1,600 lawsuits leveled by cities, states and counties across the country, Purdue Pharma is reportedly considering filing for bankruptcy protection. 

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A general view of the exterior of The Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum designed by Frank Lloyd Wright in New York City.

Source Ben Hider/Getty

Giving back. As public pressure mounts, institutions — some of them with the Sackler name emblazoned on their building facades — must decide how to deal with their ties to the embattled family. Some already have: Earlier this week, London’s National Portrait Gallery made news when it turned down a $1.3 million donation in a long-deliberated move. Activists called it “a powerful acknowledgment” of the dubious source of the money. The New York Academy of Sciences and Columbia University are also among those believed to be rethinking their relationship with the Sacklers. But experts say the legal minutiae of long-term contracts, which often don’t depend on a donor’s public behavior, could complicate efforts by institutions to distance themselves from the Sacklers. “It’s a real balancing act,” one lawyer told the Wall Street Journal. But amid high-profile protests by anti-opioid group Prescription Addiction Intervention Now (PAIN), led by photographer and former OxyContin addict Nan Goldin, it’s a decision many probably can’t put off much longer.


Dirty Money and Tainted Philanthropy, by Peter Singer in Project Syndicate

“Does any institution really want to brandish the names of people whose single-minded pursuit of profit has led to so much suffering?”

When Museum Money Meets Shaming, by Terry Teachout in The Wall Street Journal

“At what point in time do ill-gotten gains lose their moral smell? Every civilized code of law, after all, contains statutes of limitations for all but the most heinous offenses.”


Purdue Pharma’s Sackler Family in Spotlight as Lawsuits Mount Over Opioid Crisis

“There’s coverage for these kind of lawsuits, [but] nobody has enough coverage for 2,000 of them.”

Watch on Fox Business on YouTube: 

Behind Purdue Pharma’s Marketing of OxyContin

“What’s fascinating about this filing in Massachusetts is that you have hundreds of pages of documentation from inside the company showing very, very active involvement from multiple members of the family who are members of the board.” 

Watch on PBS NewsHour on YouTube:


Reason to fear? The attorney who led the effort to secure a $246 billion settlement from Big Tobacco in the 1990s, former Mississippi Attorney General Mike Moore, is now helping numerous states push back against Big Pharma — and particularly Purdue.

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