It’s been a rough month for the Sacklers, an American family who gained a name for themselves on these shores by donating millions in support of medical science, healthcare, education and the arts in the UK.
They’re worth around £10 billion, making them one of the richest families in the world, but the source of that wealth is now threatening to ruin them – both financially and by reputation.
It all centres on opioids, prescription painkillers that treat the most severe pain. They’re also highly addictive and have helped fuel a crisis in the US that in 2017 claimed the lives of 47,600 people.
Members of the Sackler family own Purdue Pharma, a company that sells OxyContin, a drug in the same family as heroin and twice as powerful as morphine.
Doctors have long been wary of prescribing such strong painkillers, well aware of how addictive they are. So when OxyContin was launched in 1996, it was accompanied by a marketing campaign that sought to downplay these concerns, funding research and paying doctors to extol the virtues of the product.
One marketing campaign even described it as a painkiller to “start with and to stay with”.
Lawsuits against Purdue Pharma allege that the company, based in Stamford, Connecticut, sold OxyContin as a drug with a low chance of triggering addictions, despite knowing this to be not true, the Press Association reports.
Inevitably, some users became hooked. In many cases, addicts found it was easier and cheaper to obtain heroin on the street in order to sate their addiction.
Four out of five people who try heroin today in the US started with prescription painkillers, according to the American Society of Addiction Medicine.
As the opioid crisis grew, the aggressive marketing techniques of the drugmakers, including Perdue, came under increasing scrutiny.
This has resulted in thousands of lawsuits in the US that aim to hold the company to account for its alleged role in the country’s opioid crisis.
Last June, Massachusetts Attorney General Maura Healey sued not just Purdue Pharma but Sackler family members, accusing them of directing deceptive marketing of opioids for years while enriching themselves to the tune of $4.2 billion (£3.18bn).
Purdue Pharma, which denies wrongdoing, has said that its products were approved by federal regulators and prescribed by doctors.
The UK Connection
The Sackler family runs The Sackler Trust, through which it claims to have donated more than £60 million to causes such as the National Portrait Gallery in London.
But the backlash against the Sackler name has prompted some of the beneficiaries to distance themselves from the family – and their money.
Earlier this month, a £1 million donation to the National Portrait Gallery was cancelled, and the trust has now said all philanthropic giving will temporarily cease so the issue “will not be a distraction for institutions that are applying for grants”.
Sackler Trust chairwoman Dame Theresa Sackler said in a statement issued on behalf of the trustees: “I am deeply saddened by the addiction crisis in America and support the actions Purdue Pharma is taking to help tackle the situation, whilst still rejecting the false allegations made against the company and several members of the Sackler family.
“The current press attention that these legal cases in the United States is generating has created immense pressure on the scientific, medical, educational and arts institutions here in the UK, large and small, that I am so proud to support.
“This attention is distracting them from the important work that they do.”
On Thursday it was reported Purdue Pharma and members of the wealthy Sackler family had reached a $270 million settlement to resolve a lawsuit by the state of Oklahoma accusing Purdue of helping fuel the opioid abuse epidemic, people familiar with the matter told Reuters.
The settlement with Oklahoma Attorney General Mike Hunter is the first to result from a wave of recent lawsuits and comes after Purdue lost a bid to delay a May 28 trial in the case, the first to be scheduled of around 2,000 lawsuits nationally.
The state had been seeking more than $20 billion in damages, according to court papers.
As part of the overall settlement, Purdue will contribute $102.5 million (£77.5m) to help fund an addiction treatment centre at Oklahoma State University, a source said.
The Sacklers, who were not named as defendants in Oklahoma’s lawsuit, agreed to contribute $75 million toward the university centre as well.
But some activists were furious, saying they were denied the chance to hold Purdue Pharma fully accountable in public, in front of a jury.
“This decision is a kick in the gut to our community,” said Ryan Hampton, who is recovering from opioid addiction.
“We deserve to have our day in court with Purdue. The parents, the families, the survivors deserve at least that. And Oklahoma stripped that from us today.”
He added: “We cannot allow Purdue to cut backroom deals with state attorneys general.”
The company continues to deny wrongdoing.