In The Shadows: The Mysterious Family Behind the American OxyContin Phenomena

Most people are aware that there is a serious Opioid crisis in America. But how many people know that the company who makes OxyContin, the highly addictive painkiller, is owned by a single family who has reaped billions of dollars of profits?

To say that the Sackler family has an impressive roster of monuments to their wealth would be an understatement. The Sackler family has had entire museums, wings, labs, stairways, and courtyards erected in their name.

From buildings and monuments to philanthropy, the Sackler name is everywhere, but the family itself is hardly ever seen. In 2015 Forbes magazine added the family to the list of America’s richest families. The billionaire family is descended from Mortimer and Raymond Sackler, two psychiatrist brothers from Brooklyn. Consisting of about 20 members, Forbes cited their wealth at a low-ball of 14 billion dollars. The family never comments publicly on the source of all that wealth – and that’s not a surprise. Most of their wealth came from sales of the narcotic painkiller, OxyContin. Since 1966 when the drug began being sold by the American branch of the Sackler’s pharmaceutical empire, Purdue Pharma, more than 200,000 people have died from overdoses on OxyContin and other painkillers.

While billions of dollars have also been made from tobacco, cars, and firearms, there is not another case where a single family has profited so greatly, and so privately, from one product as the Sackler’s have with OxyContin. Unlike other families who amass great wealth from their products and place their name on them, the Sackler’s cite “family privacy” when asked about their wealth.

After the mass opioid addictions that came with the end of the Vietnam war, people were looking for an alternative to traditional pain medication. During OxyContin’s early production, Doctor’s advice was ignored and misconceptions about how OxyContin worked were exploited by Purdue Pharmaceutical company in order to push production and sales. Purdue pleaded guilty in 2007 for criminally misbranding OxyContin.

Purdue was helped by the FDA when branding OxyContin as a less addictive alternative than past opioids because of its time-release properties. OxyContin was promoted as less appealing to addicts because they would not want a slow release pill. However, people soon found that crushing and snorting it allowed the user to intake almost the entire painkiller in one shot.

In the years following 1996 Purdue upped its sales force to over 600 people and began pointedly selling to general practitioners, dentists, obgyn’s, nurses, and physicians assistants. By 2001, sales were over $1 billion dollars. The sales staff was told to downplay addiction risks and sell using whatever means necessary. From 1996 to 2001, OxyContin prescriptions went from approximately 300,000 to almost 6 million. Next came the increase of addiction and abuse reports. Later, hundreds of doctors, who were the sales staff’s main target, would be arrested for heading up pill mills.

Script amounts increased rapidly and over the next few years dozens of lawsuits were filed against Purdue. Some were dismissed; others were taken care of with large checks from the Purdue family. Finally, in 2007, the Federal Government came in and Purdue pleaded guilty to felony charges for lying to doctors about the potential for abuse with the drug.

In 2010, Purdue made a huge change, redesigning the pill and saying that it was less susceptible to abuse in its new configuration. Purdue then claimed that because of its dangerous potential, generic manufacturers should not be able to duplicate it. On April 16, 2013, the day when critical patents were going to expire for OxyContin, the FDA announced that the formula could not be sold.

This May, lawmakers in congress sent a letter to the World Health Organization informing them of Purdue’s hand in America’s opioid crisis, warning them that they would soon be doing the same abroad.

The global impact of the Sackler’s company and actions will not be known overnight, but the family continues to make its mark all over the world.

Jeffrey Newman represents whistleblowers.