Purdue Pharma and the Sackler Family: A History of Deception and Legal Drama


Every year, opioid addiction and abuse claim tens of thousands of lives. While a variety of factors have contributed to the epidemic, one company — and one family — warrant much of the blame: Purdue Pharma.

Several members of the Sackler family are heavily involved in the company’s operations and thus the controversy surrounding Purdue Pharma. Ongoing legal efforts implicate both the company and the family at the center of its massive profits.

It’s tough to make sense of the latest round of Purdue lawsuits, in part because they follow such a long and complicated history of legal trouble. Below, we delve into this multi-faceted controversy:

From Valium to OxyContin: The Evolution of Purdue Pharma

Purdue Pharma holds a storied history in the pharmaceutical industry, but the bulk of its profits and drama emerged in the past few decades. Founded by John Purdue Gray and George Frederick Bingham in 1892, the business was once known as the Purdue Frederick Company. Today, however, we associate the company with the Sackler family, despite their recent efforts to obscure that relationship.

The shady behavior began soon after the company was sold to Mortimer and Raymond Sackler in 1952. While the public currently associates Purdue and the Sacklers with the aggressive marketing of OxyContin, the family initially found success in advertising another well-known drug: Valium.

Arthur Sackler — who owned a significant share in the company — deserves at least a portion of the blame for the pharmaceutical industry’s current aggressive marketing tactics. He introduced what was then a revolutionary idea: advertising directly to doctors. His campaign described the phenomenon of ‘psychic tension,’ to which headaches, stomachaches, and even sex issues could supposedly be linked. By targeting a vast market, Valium was able to rise above the virtually indistinguishable drug Librium to reach $1 billion in sales — an unprecedented sum at the time.

Valium supplied the Sacklers with the bulk of their initial profits, but its money-making power pales in comparison to its successor: OxyContin. In the last few decades, this powerful painkiller has granted the Sacklers even more money and prestige. This evolution largely occurred under Raymond and Mortimer Sackler, as well as Raymond’s son Richard. After becoming president, Richard Sackler oversaw one of the company’s most aggressive marketing pushes. He was also behind the company’s disturbing trend of victim-blaming.

Today, we regard OxyContin as a gateway to addiction. Initially, however, the painkiller was said to be less addictive than other medications. No scientific evidence actually backed this claim. In reality, the very extended-release formula that was said to curb abuse and addiction is thought to have contributed to an influx of overdoses.

Even Purdue Pharma now admits on its website that its extended-release formula can pose a “greater risk for overdose and death due to the larger amount of oxycodone present.” Purdue fails, however, to mention the prevalence of such tragedies. According to the United States Centers for Disease Control, nearly 218,000 people died from prescription opioid overdoses between 1999 and 2017. Furthermore, CDC statistics suggest that the overdose rate was five times as high in 2017 as in 1999. While several factors could be at play, it’s impossible to deny the extent to which this rise in the overdose rate coincides with Purdue’s substantially increased profits.

A Long History of Legal Action

While the public was largely unaware of Purdue’s schemes — and the Sackler family’s involvement until recently, the company’s legal drama actually goes back several decades. Medical experts began to cite concerns soon after the drug was approved by the FDA. A few years later, Connecticut Attorney General Richard Blumenthal expressed concern regarding an influx of pharmacy robberies, overdose deaths, and other issues related to OxyContin. He also referenced the “astonishing growth in state funding” for OxyContin via Medicare and Medicaid.

Obviously, the Sacklers didn’t pay attention to Blumenthal’s concerns. Hence, his lawsuit a few years later, in which he demonstrated that the Sackler family already knew of OxyContin’s dangers by 1998. 

Around this time, trial lawyer Paul Hanly began to collect evidence from thousands of patients, who claimed that they’d suffered OxyContin addiction despite obtaining valid physician prescriptions and abiding by their doctors’ directions. Years later, Hanly told the New Yorker that the myriad of documents obtained during his case’s discovery phase proved that Pharma “had set out to perpetrate a fraud on the entire medical community.”

An additional 2004 lawsuit — this time from West Virginia — revealed that Purdue failed to properly investigate OxyContin’s potential for abuse in clinical trials. This revelation stood in stark contrast to the efforts of top Purdue sales reps, who continued to push unverified claims of OyxContin’s supposedly lower potential for abuse. Ultimately, the state of West Virginia charged Purdue with deceptive marketing. The case ended with a settlement of $10 million, with funds directed towards programs intended to prevent drug abuse.

In 2006, Purdue settled yet again — this time with Hanly’s clients, who, together, received $75 million. Soon after, Purdue pleaded guilty in federal court to charges of misleading the public about the drug’s addictive properties. Additionally, several company executives pleaded guilty to misbranding. Purdue claimed that these employees had “violated written company policies requiring adherence to the prescribing information.”

Purdue’s settlements and guilty pleas in the mid-to-late 2000s did little to stymie the growing opioid crisis. Critics largely agree that Purdue got off easy, given the billions the company made from OxyContin. Senator Arlen Specter (R-PA) even referred to the charges as “expensive licenses for criminal misconduct.” The legal action didn’t end there, however. In 2007, Kentucky Attorney General Greg Stumbo sued Purdue alongside officials from Pike County, citing concerns over drug abuse in the Appalachia region. In 2015, this case was settled for $24 million.

Following the 2015 settlement, Purdue continued to enjoy huge profits, reaching an estimated annual revenue of $3 billion in 2017. Meanwhile, Bloomberg estimated the Sackler family net worth at $13 billion, even in the midst of Purdue’s legal woes. Ample evidence indicates that Purdue continued to profit from unsavory business practices even after its federal guilty plea and numerous settlements. This period of profitability may finally be coming to an end, however. The latest legal efforts promise to bring the full extent of the havoc wrought by Purdue and the Sacklers to light.

A New Round of Litigation: What’s at Stake for the Sacklers?

Until recently, Purdue Pharma has emerged virtually unscathed from its myriad of legal challenges. The company owes these continued successes to a combination of aggressive legal representation, silencing through settlements, and, of course, years of deception. The latest legal efforts, however, could finally prove Purdue’s undoing — and just might deliver long-warranted justice to the Sackler family.

The recent string of lawsuits began in May 2018, when six states sued Purdue, citing misleading marketing tactics. Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton, for example, referenced clear violations of the Texas Deceptive Trade Practices Act. Dozens of other states followed with additional legal action shortly thereafter, with several municipalities also joining the fight. 

One of the most notable developments in the latest Purdue drama? The piercing of the corporate veil in late 2018 and early 2019, when Massachusetts Attorney General Maura Healey targeted eight members of the Sackler family. Healey alleges that the Sacklers were well aware of the propensity for OxyContin addiction and overdoses as they continued to cash in on the hugely profitable drug. Other allegations echo those of past lawsuits: flooding the state with sales reps and aggressively advertising the drug. Purdue’s response is also eerily familiar: claims of vilification in the midst of a “complex health crisis.”

The Role of Secrecy

Several trends have held steady throughout Purdue’s many years of litigation, but the withholding of information from the public may be the most notable. Again and again, the company has managed to keep potentially incriminating data quiet. Many of Purdue’s settlements have included provisions mandating either the use of judicial secrecy orders or the outright destruction of business records. 

Purdue’s shroud of secrecy extends to the Sackler family. Despite experiencing considerable discord over the years, family members remain united in their determination to keep quiet. The Sacklers are notoriously unwilling to grant interviews, and for good reason — any interaction with media outlets could provide fuel for attorneys, prosecutors, and potential plaintiffs.

Rather than sit through interviews, the Sacklers have attempted to demonstrate goodwill via charitable contributions. Until recently, this tactic has paid dividends: their names adorn the Louvre, the Metropolitan Museum of Art, and a variety of Ivy League schools. Despite the Sacklers philanthropic pursuits, the reality of the family’s modus operandi, however, may be far more disturbing.

The word is finally out, and institutions that have benefited from the Sacklers are beginning to rethink their gift acceptance policies. Meanwhile, victims and their advocates are determined to bring justice to the company and the family that has callously pursued profits in the face of drug-induced hardship. Hopefully, the next chapter in the Purdue Pharma saga will carry a desirable resolution for those who have suffered most.









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