“The Sackler family like to put their stamp on things,” says the Evening Standard. “Walk into any of the capital’s most famous art galleries, theatres or museums and it won’t be long before you see their name” – and it’s much the same story in New York. This civic-minded Anglo-American dynasty (America’s 19th richest, according to Forbes) has emerged as one of the great philanthropic forces of the age, spreading their $13bn fortune particularly generously in the fields of art and medical research.
But now the Sacklers face “widespread accusations” that they owe their wealth in part to “the worst drugs crisis in US history”. A blockbuster painkiller called OxyContin, which was created, launched and marketed by their family firm Purdue Pharma, has been blamed for contributing to the epidemic of opioid painkiller addiction “that has swept through America”.
A new report by Donald Trump’s Council of Economic Advisors put the cost of the crisis on the US economy at $504bn in 2015 – or 2.8% of GDP, notes the Financial Times. Purdue vigorously denies that its marketing is to blame for doctors prescribing OxyContin in industrial quantities. But the controversy has been rumbling on for years: in 2007, the company paid $631m to settle a major criminal and civil case over its sales practices.
The dynasty traces its roots back to three brothers, Arthur, Mortimer (pictured) and Raymond Sackler, whose Jewish immigrant parents ran a grocer’s store in Brooklyn, says The Daily Telegraph. All three trained as doctors, but they also shared an entrepreneurial bent. The early driving force was Arthur who helped pay his way through medical school during the second world war by taking a copywriting job at an advertising agency specialising in the medical field.
He proved so “adept”, that he eventually bought the agency – and “revolutionised the industry”, says The New Yorker. “Until then, pharmaceutical companies had not availed themselves of Madison Avenue pizzazz and trickery.” But, as both a doctor and an ad man, Arthur displayed a “Don Draper-style intuition for the alchemy of marketing”.
When the brothers bought a small patent-medicine company, Purdue, in 1952, they put this expertise to action. But Purdue only really took off following Arthur’s death in 1987. The firm’s first blockbuster was an innovative painkiller called MS Contin, a morphine pill with a patented “controlled-release formula”. When the patent for that expired, they replaced it in 1995 with OxyContin – a drug whose potency far exceeded any prescription opioid on the market.
By 2001, OxyContin was the best-selling narcotic pain reliever in the US, but it also became a street drug responsible for a number of overdose deaths and evidence began accruing of its addictive qualities. That didn’t stop the gold rush, says The New Yorker. OxyContin has reportedly generated total revenues of $35bn for Purdue and its owners. The controversy surrounding the drug continues. Having spent decades in the shadows of the pharma industry, expect the Sackler name to get a lot more attention in the months to come.