The Sackler Family Finally Had to Answer Questions Publicly

Oxy Dollars and prescription bottles of OxyContin. Members of P.A.I.N. (Prescription Addiction Intervention Now) and Truth Pharm staged a rally and die-in outside New Yorks Southern District Federal Court in White Plains, where Purdue Pharmaceuticals bankruptcy hearing is being held. (Photo by Erik McGregor/LightRocket via Getty Images)

By Elle Meyers

December 18, 2020

And they still claim ignorance when it comes to their company, Purdue Pharma, pushing OxyContin to make billions.

For the first time in years, members of the Sackler family, which owns Purdue Pharma, appeared before Congress to answer questions about their role in the ongoing opioid epidemic. 

Purdue Pharma makes OxyContin, a strong narcotic painkiller. The company played a role in the rise of the opioid crisis in the United States through aggressive marketing and downplaying of the drug’s addictive qualities. Purdue has accepted some blame and paid millions in a settlement with the Department of Justice, but the family members that own it deny any responsibility. 

Since 1990, when opioids began to be prescribed more frequently, more than 450,000 Americans have died from opioid-involved overdoses. Experts note that it’s easy to become addicted to the drug especially when it is over prescribed to patients. 

The opioid crisis is not over. Overdose deaths have continued to rise in recent years; in 2019 they rose nearly 5% and opioid involved deaths accounted for more than 50,000 of the approximately 71,000 overdose deaths in the United States. And the pandemic has not helped . Early data from 2020 shows that more than 81,000 Americans died from drug overdose deaths from June 2019 to June 2020. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention noted a combination of overwhelmed hospitals, increased social isolation, and increased access to synthetic drugs have increased overdose deaths in the middle of the pandemic. 

Members of the family have avoided public testimony, so this was a rare opportunity for the public to hear directly from the Sacklers. Members of the House Oversight Committee grilled both David Sackler and his cousin, Dr. Kathe Sackler, who both previously served for years on Purdue’s board. And it may be nearly impossible to get their testimony again in the future, due to ongoing bankruptcy proceedings and nationwide litigation. 

The two Sacklers joined the meeting via video call and repeatedly denied personal responsibility for their company’s role in the opioid crisis. During the nearly four-hour hearing, the cousins deflected blame onto company management and independent board members who were not a part of the Sackler family. 

“I have tried to figure out, was there anything that I could have done differently? Knowing what I knew then — not what I know now?” said Dr. Sackler. She served on the board of Purdue Pharma from 1990 to 2018. “There’s nothing that I can find that I would have done differently based on what I believed and understood then.”

She said that reports from management to the board were “extremely distressing.” 

David Sackler said that he felt his actions were legal and ethical.

“I believe the full record will demonstrate that I still feel absolutely terrible,” David Sackler said of the association between OxyContin and a rise in addiction and death. 

The company and the family behind it also came under fire when lawmakers pointed out incredible financial gains the family made while the opioid epidemic raged. For instance the family bought a $22.5 million mansion in Bel Air, Los Angeles in cash in 2018. That same year more than 46,000 Americans died by opioid-involved drug overdose. 

“Opioids–mainly synthetic opioids–are currently the main driver of overdose deaths,” wrote the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Lawmakers were deeply skeptical of the Sackler’s account and did not pull their punches in addressing the two. 

“Watching you testify makes my blood boil. I’m not aware of any family in America that is more evil than yours,” said Rep. Jim Cooper (D-Tenn.). 

There has been some progress implicating Purdue Pharma for promoting its narcotics in a misleading way. For instance, last month Purdue pleaded guilty to three felonies for engaging in kickbacks and fraudulent promotion of its drugs. In a settlement with the Justice Department the company was fined $8.3 billion in criminal and civil penalties, and the family members were fined for $225  million in civil penalties. 

However the Sacklers did not admit to any wrongdoing, and the amount they paid is just about 2% of the family’s net worth. 


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