For decades many of the world’s leading art museums have been the proud beneficiaries of large financial contributions from the Sackler family of New York. Sackler wings display world-class art in the Louvre in Paris, the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, the National Gallery in London, and numerous other museums and university art collections. These donations stem from the Sacklers’ remarkable financial success in the pharmaceutical industry, which allowed them to build a family fortune now estimated at more than $13 billion.
But in the last several years, the Sackler family and their main commercial holding, Purdue Pharma, have gained notoriety for a different reason: the role Purdue Pharma and its flagship drug, OxyContin, have played in fueling the opioid crisis. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, over the past two decades, more than 200,000 people in this country have died from overdoses of highly addictive opioids, like OxyContin. While this and other opioids can and often do have huge benefits for those suffering from intense chronic pain, the lives of hundreds of thousands of others have been ruined as they have struggled to overcome the debilitating effects of over-prescription and drug addiction.
The Sackler family and their representatives vigorously deny any responsibility for these devastating personal tragedies. Responding to a lawsuit filed this week against members of the family by the New York Attorney General, a Sackler spokesperson called the allegations “a misguided attempt to place blame where it does not belong for a complex public health crisis.” But recent revelations tell a different story. While representatives of Purdue Pharma have portrayed Sackler family members as being distant from the day-to-day operations of the company, evidence presented in pending court cases paint a much darker picture.
According to a lawsuit brought by the Massachusetts Attorney General earlier this year, members of the Sackler family personally directed Purdue sales representatives to advise doctors to prescribe the highest dosage of OxyContin to maximize company profits. The Massachusetts suit names eight members of the Sackler family, including, most notably, Richard, the company’s former chairman and president. In 2001, when a federal prosecutor reported59 deaths caused by overdose of OxyContin, Richard Sackler tried to minimize the problem, telling company officials: “This is not too bad … it could have been far worse.” That same year, Sackler wrote an internal email urging his subordinates in the company to push the blame onto those who had become addicted to OxyContin. “We have to hammer on abusers in every way,” he wrote, “They are the culprits and the problem. They are reckless criminals.”
And while he and other family members resigned from their official positions with the company in 2007 as a condition of settling a Justice Department lawsuit, they appear to have continued to control and even micromanage company sales and marketing efforts. Apparently Richard Sackler was pushing so hard for his aggressive marketing approach that in 2012 one Purdue sales official pleaded in an internal email, “Anything you could do to reduce the direct contact of Richard into the organization is appreciated.”
This article originally appeared on Forbes