The Sackler brothers represented America’s wildest dream: three Brooklyn-born sons of Jewish immigrants who became physicians and went on to found a pharmaceutical dynasty that is today worth more than $13 billion.
The family used their fortune to invest in the arts and philanthropy, with Sackler wings at the Metropolitan Museum in New York, Victoria and Albert Museum in London, and the Louvre in Paris – to name just a few. The Sackler name, however, is conspicuously missing from anything associated with their main source of income, Purdue Pharmaceuticals and its related companies, or its billion dollar product: OxyContin. You won’t find them on the company’s logo, on their bottle labels, or even on their website.
For years, the Sacklers' company billed OxyContin as a safer alternative to morphine. This led to rampant over-prescription of the drug, which has created a snowball effect of addiction to opioid-based painkillers, according to critics, essentially kick-starting the modern epidemic President Trump has labelled as a public health emergency.
More than 200 US states, cities and counties have filed lawsuits against Purdue Pharma for criminal misbranding of the drug. New York Mayor Bill de Blasio has declared war against Purdue and other pharmaceutical companies for their roles in creating a generation of addicts – and is seeking $500 million in damages he says the city needs to climb out of the hole Oxycontin has created.
Meanwhile, overdose is now the leading cause of death for Americans under 50 – greater than gun violence and car accidents combined – and has devastated families across the country.
The onslaught of legal action prompted Purdue last week to stop promoting opioid drugs to doctors and halve its sales force; company representatives will no longer visit doctors’ offices to advertise the addictive drugs.
The middle Sackler brother Mortimer is pictured with his wife Theresa, right, and daughter Marissa, left, at the 2003 Stella Artois Tennis Championships at the Queens Club in London. After Arthur Sackler died in 1987, Mortimer and his younger brother Raymond bought his option of Purdue Pharma for $22.4 million
The youngest Sackler, Raymond, is pictured with his wife Beverly. Raymond was in control of Purdue Pharma after Arthur died, and in 1999, passed the reigns to his son Richard. The father-son duo were working at Purdue when the company began manufacturing OxyContin and using questionable advertising practices to promote it
The children and grandchildren of the three Sackler brothers, who started a pharmaceutical empire, continue to enjoy luxurious lifestyles and properties, such as the multi-million-dollar Central Park apartment in this building which is owned by Mortimer's oldest daughter, Ilene Sackler Lefcourt - who was listed as a director of Purdue's sister company, UK-based Napp Pharamaceutical Holdings, as of December 2016
Richard Sackler, son of founding brother Raymond, headed Purdue from 1999 to 2003 and oversaw much of the increasing sales of OxyContin as it was being falsely advertised; as of December 2016, he was still listed as a director of sister company Napp Pharmaceuticals and now lives on this sprawling estate outside of Austin, Texas that features six bedrooms, six bathrooms, a pool and stunning views of Lake Austin
‘We have restructured and significantly reduced our commercial operation and will no longer be promoting opioids to prescribers,’ the company said in a statement.
The Sackler family, however, has remained quiet in the background. The three brothers who founded the pharmaceutical empire – Arthur, Mortimer and Raymond – are all dead, but some of their descendants remain actively involved in the company. One of their widows and two children were directors until as recently as October of Napp Pharmaceuticals, one of the family’s UK-based companies which also sold OxyContin. Several others were listed as directors as of December 2016.
The descendant generations have continued the brothers’ legacy of philanthropy, but there is no denying that they simultaneously enjoy lifestyles of fabulous wealth. There are multi-million-dollar homes in the Hamptons, Switzerland, Antibes and the swankiest parts of London; one of Mortimer’s daughters bought the nine-bedroom former Chelsea home of Hugh Grant and heiress Jemima Khan.
The Sacklers’ children are an established presence on the glitzy society circuit of benefits and events both in the US and UK, wearing perfectly-tailored suits and designer dresses. The next generation – the grandchildren – attend the finest schools and jet to holidays in places such as the Swiss resort of Gstaad.
Their social media posts make no mention of the opioid crisis gripping America and the world – though the descendants of oldest brother Arthur have sought to distance themselves from the situation.
‘I, nor my siblings, nor my children have ever owned or benefited from Purdue Pharma or OxyContin or oxycodone,’ his daughter, Elizabeth, told DailyMail.com.
‘It’s another branch of the family. Purdue Pharma was owned by my uncles and my cousins. I have no relationship to it whatsoever.’
The descendants of her two uncles, however, declined to comment on this story, said Bob Josephson, executive director of communications for Purdue Pharma.
He referred instead to a statement from Purdue: 'Many leading medical, scientific, cultural and educational institutions throughout the world have been beneficiaries of Sackler family philanthropy for nearly seven decades, including long before OxyContin was approved by FDA in December 1995. Since that approval, OxyContin has been and continues to be appropriately prescribed by doctors to bring needed relief to millions of Americans suffering from severe pain, including those with cancer and terminal illnesses.'
He added the following statement, as well: 'Despite how our critics portray us, and having less than 2% of all opioid prescriptions, Purdue has led industry efforts to combat prescription drug abuse which includes collaborating with law enforcement, funding state prescription drug monitoring programs and directing health care professionals to the CDC’s Guideline for Prescribing Opioids for Chronic Pain. In addition, we’ve recently announced educational initiatives aimed at teenagers warning of the dangers of opioids and continue to fund grants to law enforcement to help with accessing naloxone.'
THE SACKLER FAMILY: A DYNASTY OF PHYSICIANS, ADVERTISERS AND PHILANTHROPISTS
Arthur Sackler, the eldest of the three brothers, held an option to purchase a portion of stock in Purdue Frederick while his younger brothers were active players in the new venture. When he died in 1987, the option was sold to Mortimer and Raymond
It all started in 1952, when the Sackler brothers paved the way for the family’s future wealth by purchasing a small pharmaceutical company called Purdue Frederick in lower Manhattan; Arthur held an option to purchase a portion of stock while his younger brothers were active players in the new venture. (When Arthur eventually died in 1987, the option was sold to Mortimer and Raymond.)
At the time of the Sacklers' Purdue Frederick purchase, Arthur and his brothers had already established successful careers as physicians. Mortimer and Raymond Sackler did substantial research in the fields of psychoanalytic disorders and drugs used to treat them. Their industrious legacy has trickled down through the family: Mortimer's daughter Marissa went on to found the non-profit startup Beespace, which is involved with the Malala Fund, and Raymond's son Richard eventually became Purdue's president.
The company sprung from its humble beginnings when Arthur proved himself again as a trailblazer after he began working with a small ad agency in New York City, and excelled so much there that he went on the buy the company altogether. He possessed a unique understanding of the need for advertisements to appeal to its specific audience – a technique that was still in its infancy during the 1950s – catalyzing the hysteria surrounding new medical discoveries of the era such as steroids, antibiotics, and psychoactive drugs.
Arthur built up his experience by producing contracted advertisements for other pharmaceutical companies such as Pfizer and Roche in the late 1950s and 1960s. It was then that he began to cultivate questionable practices.
For a Pfizer ad promoting a new antibiotic called Sigmamycin, Arthur designed a spread of doctors’ business cards which were pictured next to the phrase: ‘More and more physicians find Sigmamycin the antibiotic therapy of choice.’ The only problem was – the doctors didn’t actually exist. An investigation in 1959 discovered that the doctors’ names printed in the ad were fabricated.
Arthur’s Roche advertisement in the 1960s was for Valium – depicting a woman surrounded by concerned doctors and family members because of her ‘psychic tension’, a 20th century term for what is now just considered stress. Valium became the first drug in US history to top $100 million in sales.
This work earned Arthur a spot posthumously in the Medical Advertising Hall of Fame in 1997 - citing his achievement of ‘bringing the full power of advertising and promotion to pharmaceutical marketing’.
After Arthur’s death, his branch of the Sackler family claim to have distanced themselves from the Purdue empire. His daughter Elizabeth told DailyMail.com she has never profited from Purdue Pharma or OxyContin
When Arthur died, Raymond and his brother Mortimer purchased Arthur’s share of Purdue Pharma for $22.4 million while pioneering its sister company, Napp Pharmaceuticals, in the United Kingdom. Napp Pharma headquarters in Cambridge, England are pictured here
Like their parents, cousins Elizabeth and Richard both have set up charitable funds in their names. Websites are not available for either. Elizabeth Sackler (second from left) is pictured with (from left) Director of the Brooklyn Museum Anne Pasternak, activist Gloria Steinem, First lady of new York City Chirlane McCray and honoree Angela Y Davis at the 2016 Brooklyn Museum's Sackler Center First
Mortimer and his wife Theresa were known as international philanthropists, and are pictured here in 2004 at the Cartier Dinner at the Chelsea Physic Garden
Despite their prominent status in the medical community, the Sacklers struck gold using their skills in advertising, publicizing products in a way that wooed the nation into popping pills by the billions.
When Purdue, and by proxy the Sacklers, developed OxyContin in 1996 – it was the same penchant for questionable advertising that landed them, and the nation, in trouble.
By this point, Arthur had already passed away in 1987, and the company was being headed by the youngest Sackler sibling, Raymond. Raymond and his brother Mortimer purchased Arthur’s share of Purdue Pharma for $22.4 million while pioneering its sister company, Napp Pharmaceuticals, in the United Kingdom. Less than a year before Raymond died in July 2017, Purdue was valued at $13 billion by Forbes.
In a statement to DailyMail.com, Arthur's widow, Jillian Sackler, said: 'Arthur died nearly a decade before Purdue Pharma – owned by the families of Mortimer and Raymond Sackler (his brothers) -- developed and marketed OxyContin. At the time of his death in 1987, Arthur was lauded for his contributions to medical research, medical communications and museums.
'He was a renowned art collector and connoisseur, and because of this, we have the Arthur M. Sacker Gallery of Chinese Stone Sculpture at The Met, the Arthur M. Sackler Gallery at the Smithsonian, the Arthur M. Sackler Museum at Harvard, the Jillian and Arthur M. Sackler Wing of Galleries at the Royal Academy and the Arthur M. Sackler Museum of Art and Archaeology and the Jillian Sackler Sculpture Garden at Peking University. None of the charitable donations made by Arthur prior to his death, nor that I made on his behalf after his death, were funded by the production, distribution or sale of OxyContin or other revenue from Purdue Pharma. Period.
'Further, as a physician and medical scientist, Arthur was moved by a curiosity and desire to improve lives with new therapies. He made a substantial part of his fortune over 50 years in medical research, medical advertising and trade publications. His philanthropy in medicine extended to the Arthur M. Sackler Center for Health Communications at Tufts University and the Arthur M. Sackler Sciences Center at Clark University.
'All these gifts, made in the 1970s and 80s, were made independently of his brothers and their families.'
A ‘MIRACLE DRUG’: HOW OXYCONTIN CAME TO BE – AND DUPED THE NATION
From 1999 to 2003 the company was run by Raymond’s son Richard Sackler. He oversaw much of the increasing sales of OxyContin as it was being falsely advertised
From 1999 to 2003 the company was run by Raymond’s son Richard Sackler.
Former Purdue employees told the New Yorker that Richard, now 72, is fiercely private, but extremely eccentric in the workplace. Richard assisted his father throughout the 1980s as the company pioneered their revolutionary ‘time-release’ morphine pill, which would gradually break down in the body over a longer period of time than traditional medications.
Purdue’s United Kingdom equivalent, Napp Pharmaceuticals, debuted their first time-release morphine pill in 1981 – known as the ‘Contin’ system. Six years later, in 1987, the MS Contin system made the jump to the United States.
The drug had one primary consumer: cancer patients. MS Contin was supposed to be able to provide longer-lasting pain relief throughout the night without needing an IV. However, this niche market was not incredibly lucrative, so Richard made it his goal to find broader uses for the Contin system.
Dr Andrew Kolodny, an addiction expert and Co-Director of Opioid Policy Research at Brandeis University, explained further how Richard was able to make MS Contin became more widely prescribed, and gave way to the development of OxyContin.
He told DailyMail.com: ‘MS Contin was coming off patent, and that product had only really been prescribed to people with cancer at the end of life. You’re not going to make much money if your product is only being used by people at the end of their life. So they wanted to make a product prescribed for common chronic pain - people with pain from cancer is not a common condition.
‘Some of the patients enrolled in their clinical trials had a very hard time coming off of the drug - so [its addictive qualities] should not have been a surprise to them,’ he continued.
The Sacklers' pharmaceutical efforts began with brothers Arthur, Mortimer and Raymond. Arthur's children were not actively involved in the business, but sons and daughters of Mortimer and Sackler - as well as the wives they were married to at the time of their deaths - continued directorship of Napp Pharmaceutical Holdings, based in Cambridge, England; this family tree outlines the Sackler descendants and their connection with the family business
Richard Sackler's former Greenwich, Connecticut home - where he lived with his wife and children before he divorced and moved to Texas - was situated on two acres, featured seasonal water views and a community dock in the gated neighborhood and included a pool and pool house
Richard Sackler's former Greenwich home boasts a vaulted gallery and airy open spaces, befitting a family whose philanthropy often focused on the arts
Richard's Greenwich home has since been sold; these real estate photos from last year show contemporary furnishings in the coveted residence
Jonathan Sackler, Richard's brother and son of youngest brother Raymond, has been a huge supporter of education and has given tens of thousands in donations to the Democratic party; he and his wife have also held a fundraiser in their home (pictured) in the exclusive enclave of Greenwich, Connecticut, with gorgeous views of the Long Island Sound
Dr Kathe Sackler and her wife, Susan Shack Sackler (fourth and third from left, respectively) are well-known for their philanthropic efforts; Kathe is the second daughter of founding brother Mortimer and was also listed as a Napp director as of December 2016
Dr Mortimer Sackler, Jr - who was also listed as a Napp director as of December 2016 - is pictured with his wife, Jacqueline, at the Winter Dance 2006 Desert Oasis sponsored by Versace at The American Museum of Natural History in February 2006
In 1990, then-Vice President of clinical research at Purdue, Robert Kaiko, suggested that they begin developing a new time-release pill containing oxycodone instead of morphine.
Though both drugs are opiates derived from the poppy plant, oxycodone came into the public eye at a time when morphine was being demonized – following a mass addiction to heroin by Vietnam veterans after the war.
Purdue’s product containing purely oxycodone – OxyContin – hit the shelves in 1996. A press release advertising the drug promised 12 hours of ‘smooth and sustained pain control’, diminished presence of ‘common opioid-related side effects’, and ‘improved patients’ quality of life, mood, and sleep’.
Oxycodone was then considered among doctors to be less powerful and addictive then morphine, though it was actually nearly 50 per cent stronger.
‘The argument they made was that since the drug is a longer lasting or slower release of the euphoric effect, it would be safer,’ Dr Kolodny continued.
However – the exact opposite was true, and the result has been devastating. Recreational drug users discovered that by crushing, snorting or injecting the OxyContin pills, they could bypass the time-release effect and get the full impact of the pill immediately.
In 2016, drug overdoses took the lives of 64,070 people – outnumbering the total American lives lost in the entirety of the Vietnam War.
Bob Josephson, Purdue's executive director for communications, provided the following company statement to DailyMail.com: 'Despite how our critics portray us, and having less than 2% of all opioid prescriptions, Purdue has led industry efforts to combat prescription drug abuse which includes collaborating with law enforcement, funding state prescription drug monitoring programs and directing health care professionals to the CDC’s Guideline for Prescribing Opioids for Chronic Pain. In addition, we’ve recently announced educational initiatives aimed at teenagers warning of the dangers of opioids and continue to fund grants to law enforcement to help with accessing naloxone.'
FROM THE 90s TO NOW: OXYCONTIN’S PATH OF DESTRUCTION
Overdose deaths due to opioid drugs have steadily been on the rise for the last two decades, since the invention of OxyContin. The preliminary reports for 2016 only came to light in August of 2017, because characterizing overdose deaths is a difficult science.
The Centers for Disease Control estimate that prescription opioids killed 14,400 people in 2016.
President Trump declared last month that the opioid epidemic is now a national public health emergency, saying: ‘As you all know, from personal experience, families, citizens and Americans across the country are currently dealing with the worst drug crisis in American history.’
In declaring the widespread drug abuse a ‘public health emergency’ – efforts to combat opioid addiction now have access to a Public Health Emergency Fund totaling just $57,000.
This month, opioid commission member Patrick Kennedy slammed Trump’s declaration as a ‘sham’ – and that the government’s low-ball funding would not even scratch the surface of what is needed to combat the epidemic. In addition, many of President Trump’s policies stand to make the situation worse – including the proposed cuts of $722 billion to Medicaid by 2026.
For many, the issue has become one that can’t be ignored. It’s been a family member, a partner, or a loved one that has overdosed – and now it’s personal.
Revered photographer Nan Goldin published the devastating truth about her battle with OxyContin, and has launched a social media campaign with the hashtag #ShameonSackler to raise awareness about the family’s role in the crisis.