David Sackler Speaks Out: My Family Didn't Cause The Opioid Crisis

By Kelly Burch 06/26/19

The third-generation Sackler defended his family, Purdue Pharma and OxyContin in an eye-opening interview with Vanity Fair.

David Sackler holding a microphone

David Sackler — a former board member at Purdue Pharma and son of Richard Sackler, whose infamous comments about opioids have been made public this year — says that his family’s role in the opioid epidemic is misunderstood. 

Speaking with Vanity Fair, Sackler called the focus on the family “vitriolic hyperbole” and “endless castigation.” However, he said that his entire family has the utmost sympathy for people whose lives have been upended up opioid abuse. 

“We have so much empathy,” he said. “I’m sorry we didn’t start with that. We feel absolutely terrible. Facts will show we didn’t cause the crisis, but we want to help.”

Sackler decided to speak out because he felt that by staying silent the family has let other people take control of the story about Purdue Pharma, his family and opioid abuse. He wanted to begin “begin humanizing” the family. 

“We have not done a good job of talking about this,” Sackler said. “That’s what I regret the most.” 

Sackler said that it was true that Purdue was one of the first companies to emphasize the pain-relieving qualities of opioids. 

“We were. But as the science changed, we put safeguards in place,” he said. 

Although OxyContin is often pinpointed as the start of the epidemic, Sackler said that idea is inaccurate. 

“To argue that OxyContin started this is not in keeping with history,” he said. 

He added that people are judging the company’s actions through a modern lens, without taking into account the prevailing wisdom at the time. 

“I really don’t think there’s much in the complaints, frankly, that’s at issue that’s not just, ‘Oh, you shouldn’t have marketed these things at all,’” he said. “Right? And I guess that’s a hindsight debate one can have.”

Sackler argued that OxyContin is not as addictive as is often portrayed, but also said that regulatory bodies share the blame for allowing the drug to move forward. He said that ultimately the Food and Drug Administration decided that the pain relief benefits of OxyContin outweighed the addiction risk.

“The FDA approved this medication with that balance in mind,” Sackler said. “So like any medication that has unintended side effects, you knew that this was one. It was approved as one. Doctors understood it, right?”

When the risks became clear, Purdue put protective measures in place, including barring sales reps from contacting doctors who operated pill mills, Sackler said. 

“None of the facts support the notion of these craven people just blithely ignoring the risks,” he said. “The company was trying to do the right thing under incredible stress.”

Sackler revealed that his father Richard, who once referred to people abusing OxyContin as “reckless criminals,” has poor communication skills. 

“He just cannot understand how his words are going to land on somebody,” Sackler said. That is made even worse when Richard’s written remarks are released to the public, he noted. “For a person like that, email is about the worst medium possible to communicate in, because there is no other cue. And so he’s saying things that sound incredibly strident and sound incredibly unsympathetic, and that’s not the person that he is.”   

He emphasized that while Purdue was not responsible for the opioid epidemic, the family certainly should not be held personally responsible. 

“The suits are grasping at the notion that the Sacklers were in charge of the operation,” he said. “That’s just so not true. I was on the board from 2012 to 2018, and I was voting on information I was given.”

Sackler insisted that Purdue and his family have done good over the years. 

“It’s overwhelming what the company over the years was trying to do to fix this problem, and the money they spent,” he said. “And it’s heartbreaking for all of us in the family, not only to be attacked personally for this, but just to know the truth, and to know what the rest of the industry did in comparison—nothing. Nothing at all. Not a thing at all.”

He continued, “We have gone past the point where no good deed goes unpunished into the theater of the absurd.”

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Kelly Burch writes about addiction and mental health issues, particularly as they affect families. Follow her on TwitterFacebook, and LinkedIn.