By the time a class-action lawyer asked Kathe Sackler whether her family’s firm, Purdue Pharma, and its prescription painkiller OxyContin bore any responsibility for the US opioid crisis, a shocking 450,000 Americans had died of opioid-related overdoses in the 23 years since the pills hit the market.
But Sackler, after some hedging and deflecting, asserted not only that the family had nothing to be ashamed of or apologize for but that she deserved credit for coming up with “the idea” of OxyContin, which was a “very good medicine”, according to a forthcoming book by the journalist and author Patrick Radden Keefe.
“It’s a very good medicine and it’s a very effective and safe medicine," sy het gese, according to Empire of Pain: The Secret History of the Sackler Dynasty, which is published next week.
The book recounts how in spring 2019 sy, seven of her Sackler relatives and Purdue Pharma were being sued by cities and states across the US.
The attorney general of New York, Letitia James, had said OxyContin was “the taproot” of a national crisis, and the attorney general of Massachusetts, Maura Healey, maintained in a lawsuit that “a single family made the choices that caused much of the opioid epidemic”.
So Sackler found herself in the Manhattan offices of a top-flight law firm giving a sworn deposition.
“Her lawyers had fought to prevent this deposition and she did not want to be there,” the book says.
But by the end of questioning by class-action plaintiffs lawyer Paul Hanley, “Kathe Sackler was outing herself, proudly, as the taproot of OxyContin”.
OxyContin, a brand-name pill containing the narcotic oxycodone, derived from the opium poppy and more potent than morphine, is indeed effective at blocking pain.
It was launched in 1996 with Purdue’s groundbreaking slow-release formula that the company claimed made the pills safe. They marketed it so hard for chronic pain that it became one of the biggest blockbuster drugs in pharmaceutical history, generating $35bn in revenue, the book notes.
But even as addiction and abuse unfolded across the US in a way it hadn’t before OxyContin, Purdue Pharma denied responsibility.
And the clutch of billionaire Sacklers who own and controlled the company kept their distance from it in public while ostentatiously donating hundreds of millions of dollars to elite American and British arts and science institutions, which adorned their galleries and faculties with the Sackler name.
Keefe, who wrote the New Yorker article has now expanded his work into a book that chronicles criminal and civil investigations into the makers of OxyContin, en, according to the jacket blurb, “the scorched-earth legal tactics that the family has used to evade accountability” amid the “indifference to human suffering that built one of the world’s great fortunes”.
The Sacklers who were board members of Purdue escaped unscathed in the 2007 federal prosecution of the company and three of its senior executives.
Keefe’s book describes how lightly the company and the family got away, to the fury of some key prosecutors. But also how the most active Sacklers within the company, especially patriarch Raymond and his sons Richard and Jonathan, drove the aggressive sales and marketing strategy of OxyContin.
They expanded its use relentlessly even as one official at the US Food and Drug Administration warned that the drug was “creeping into a whole population of people where it doesn’t belong”.
Later, David Kessler, who was head of the FDA when the drug was approved, called the “destigmatization of opioids that OxyContin helped initiate” one of the “great mistakes of modern medicine”.
Richard’s son David, until recently also a board member and prospective future head of the company, and their cousin Kathe testified remotely before Congress last year, speaking words of sympathy but assiduously denying family culpability.
This followed years where Purdue not only fueled the US addiction catastrophe but the Sacklers who owned the company “declined even to release a general statement, in their own names, acknowledging that the opioid crisis existed” despite repeated efforts by staff to persuade them, the book says.
And the testimony came after many of the most prestigious recipients of Sackler philanthropy, from New York’s Metropolitan Museum en Columbia University, to London’s Tate en Serpentine Gallery, aan the Louvre in Paris, finally decided to shun future Sackler gifts, in the wake of the thousands of US lawsuits and a high-profile campaign against such “blood money” led by the American art photographer Nan Goldin.
In 2019 Purdue Pharma filed for bankruptcy en last month submitted its definitive restructuring and settlement proposal to a court in New York. Last year Purdue pleaded guilty again to federal criminal charges.
Hierdie keer, the relevant Sacklers paid $225m in damages as part of the Justice Department deal but still faced no charges and admitted no wrongdoing.
In a statement sent to the National Public Radio (NPR) US media organization on Thursday as part of its coverage of Keefe’s new book, Daniel Connolly, an attorney representing the Raymond Sackler branch of the family, slammed Empire of Pain, accusing Keefe of “refusing to meet with representatives for the Sackler family during the reporting of his book”.
NPR also reported that Connolly said documents released as part of Purdue Pharma’s bankruptcy show the Sackler family members who served on the company’s board acted “ethically and lawfully”.
And the Mortimer Sackler branch of the family also sent NPR a statement: “Our focus is on concluding a resolution that will provide help to people and communities in need, rather than on this book,” het 'n woordvoerder gesê.