Let us now speak of the Sackler brothers – Arthur, Mortimer, and Raymond – patriarchs of the pharmaceutical-fueled family that has made billions of dollars from the sale of OxyContin, the marketing of which has undeniably triggered America’s current opioid crisis.
First, the family’s public face, detailed in this recent Esquire piece by Christopher Glazek.
The newly installed Sackler Courtyard at London’s Victoria and Albert Museum is one of the most glittering places in the developed world . . .
The Sackler Courtyard is the latest addition to an impressive portfolio. There’s the Sackler Wing at New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art, which houses the majestic Temple of Dendur, a sandstone shrine from ancient Egypt; additional Sackler wings at the Louvre and the Royal Academy; stand-alone Sackler museums at Harvard and Peking Universities; and named Sackler galleries at the Smithsonian, the Serpentine, and Oxford’s Ashmolean. The Guggenheim in New York has a Sackler Center, and the American Museum of Natural History has a Sackler Educational Lab.
More: “Members of the family, legendary in museum circles for their pursuit of naming rights, have also underwritten projects of a more modest caliber—a Sackler Staircase at Berlin’s Jewish Museum; a Sackler Escalator at the Tate Modern; a Sackler Crossing in Kew Gardens.”
Too much: “A popular species of pink rose is named after a Sackler. So is an asteroid.”
So, to recap, two generations of Sacklers have slapped their name on anything that doesn’t move, and at least one thing that does.
But the place you will never find their name? Anywhere that OxyContin appears, as Esquire’s Glazek points out.
By any assessment, the family’s leaders have pulled off three of the great marketing triumphs of the modern era: The first is selling OxyContin; the second is promoting the Sackler name; and the third is ensuring that, as far as the public is aware, the first and the second have nothing to do with one another.
But the first – in the form of Purdue Pharma, the Sacklers’ company – has plenty to do with the current opioid crisis, according to Patrick Radden Keefe’s major takeout in The New Yorker, which appeared around the same time as the Esquire piece in mid-October. Keefe refers to the Sackler dynasty’s “ruthless marketing of painkillers” and quotes one medical expert saying, “Most of the questionable practices that propelled the pharmaceutical industry into the scourge it is today can be attributed to Arthur Sackler.”
Ideally, the goal with a painkiller as powerful as OxyContin should have been to “sell the least dose of the drug to the smallest number of patients.” Purdue Pharma was hellbent to do the opposite. The company promoted OxyContin as “virtually non-addicting” and paid doctors to produce studies and deliver testimonials.
As Keefe writes, “[t]he marketing of OxyContin relied on an empirical circularity: the company convinced doctors of the drug’s safety with literature that had been produced by doctors who were paid, or funded, by the company.”
The result? The U.S. accounts for about one-third of the global opioid market, with an estimated two and a half million Americans having an opioid-use disorder.
Glazek adds that, according to a study published by the American Public Health Association, “the total economic burden from opioid use [since 2013] stood at about $80 billion, adding together health costs, criminal-justice costs, and GDP loss from drug-dependent Americans leaving the workforce.”
And the cost in human life?
This past July, Donald Trump’s Commission on Combating Drug Addiction and the Opioid Crisis, led by New Jersey governor Chris Christie, declared that opioids were killing roughly 142 Americans each day, a tally vividly described as “September 11th every three weeks.”
In 2007 Purdue pleaded guilty to felony charges for “criminally ‘misbranding’ OxyContin,” Glazek writes. “As the company later admitted, it misleadingly promoted OxyContin as less addictive than older opioids on the market.” Purdue paid $600 million in fines – lunch money compared to the $35 billion in revenues OxyContin has generated for the company.
With both the Esquire and New Yorker pieces landing with a big bang (and with multiple cities and counties suing opioid makers), it’s likely no coincidence that Purdue has been running this full-page ad in the New York Times and Wall Street Journal for the past few weeks.
The headline, of course, is laughable, but the last paragraph is an even bigger joke.
No one solution will end the crisis, but multiple, overlapping efforts will. We want everyone engaged to know you have a partner in Purdue Pharma. This is our fight, too.
Really? One final quote from Keefe: “This is one dreadful paradox of the history of OxyContin: the original formulation [which you could crush and snort or melt and shoot] created a generation addicted to pills; the reformulation [which you couldn’t do either], by forcing younger users off the drug, helped create a generation addicted to heroin.”
And no Potemkin marketing campaign is going to change that.