Columnist Valerie Schultz

This is for all the families whose grief can be traced to the Sackler family.

It hardly seems possible that one family could be the cause of the trauma and sorrow of millions of families, but the Sackler family is exceptional. As owners and heirs of Purdue Pharma, they made billions of dollars from the creation of their drug OxyContin. Oxy, as it is commonly known, is a potent painkiller that has made life bearable for many of its users. It is also a dangerously addictive opioid.

While many drug companies have profited from introducing new and effective prescription painkillers, Purdue Pharma was especially aggressive in marketing their wonder drug to doctors, including using illegal kickback schemes, as well as to unsuspecting patients. Since the 1995 launch of OxyContin, Purdue Pharma has made roughly $30 billion by recommending that doctors freely prescribe OxyContin for all kinds of chronic pain and ailments. All the while, the company assured medical professionals that the drug would only lead to possible addiction in less than 1 percent of patients.

That is not true.

If you know anyone who is hooked on Oxy, you know that is not true.

The millions of Americans dependent on or addicted to OxyContin and other opioids straddle all lines of age, gender, race, creed and socioeconomic status. Maybe they needed relief from the ongoing pain of a work-related injury, or maybe they needed help to manage temporary discomfort after surgery, or maybe they needed to escape the agony of a chronic medical condition. The power of OxyContin saved them. They were pain-free. Then they were dependent on that daily dose. Then they had to up the dose. Then they were addicted to an opioid. Then, if they could no longer wangle a prescription, or couldn’t afford their supply, they sometimes turned to heroin or fentanyl to avoid or ease their withdrawal symptoms. All along, a public health crisis was growing. Since 1999, more than 450,000 Americans have died as a result of opioid use.

Many desperate families of Oxy addicts are at their wits’ ends as they try to find help for their loved ones, and as they try to stick with them through recovery and relapses. Ironically, an international affiliate of Purdue Pharma now markets a drug called naloxone as an antidote to counteract an opioid overdose. The Sackler family has thus managed to profit both from the problem their company caused and the short-term solution to it.

At least the Sackler name has lately tumbled in cultural stature. Signage acknowledging Sackler contributions has been hastily erased from institutions like the Louvre Museum, the Sackler charitable donations now tainted with the whiff of the widespread wreckage of lives. But the Sacklers themselves are poised to walk away from ownership of their company with their metaphorical pockets stuffed, as they have gradually withdrawn over $10 billion of Purdue Pharma’s assets. The company itself is now in bankruptcy proceedings, but the Sacklers personally are not. The thousands of families, along with state and local governments, who have sued for damages will not end up with much to compensate for their losses. Too bad for you if your name is not Sackler.

In a recent proposed federal settlement, the Sacklers themselves have agreed to pay $225 million in civil penalties, but they continues to push for release from any personal liability for wrongdoing. As with the previous $665 million settlement that the U.S. Department of Justice reached in 2007 with Purdue Pharma in punishment for egregiously misleading advertising, no one in the company will have to serve any time in prison. In the same settlement, Purdue Pharma will plead guilty to criminal charges of deceptive marketing and pay punitive fines of approximately $8.3 billion, but the U.S. government will have to wait in line in bankruptcy court with all of the company’s other creditors. 

Of course, all the money in the world will not bring back the life of a son or a daughter, a mother or father, a spouse or a sibling. The collateral damage to families from this one family’s greed is astounding. My heart goes out to you if you have watched a loved one become addicted to opioids or suffer an overdose or die. I lost someone I love to an accidental overdose. The well of grief seems bottomless.

Even as so many lives are left in ruins and even as many families are in mourning for deceased loved ones, members of the Sackler family have had the gall to release a statement saying they have “acted ethically and lawfully.” Maybe the ethics and laws of the fabulously wealthy are different from the ones us regular folks have to live by. It seems clear to me that our families have been robbed by a family for whom there seems to be no real justice.

Email contributing columnist Valerie Schultz at vschultz22@gmail.com. The views expressed here are her own.