The Secretive Billionaire Family Behind The Rise Of Oxycontin

By Victoria Kim 11/03/17

Earlier this year, lawmakers in congress warned the World Health Organization that the family's companies were "preparing to flood foreign countries with legal narcotics."

Sly businessman hiding his face behind US dollar banknotes in the dark

America’s opioid crisis has become a large and tangled mess so great that we're not sure who to blame for the numerous deaths and addictions it has caused. 

But a recent Esquire report offers some clarity, by detailing the history of how OxyContin grew to be the most notorious brand of prescription painkillers on the market. 

The focus of the Esquire story is the prestigious Sackler family. You may have come across the name “Sackler” when visiting the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City, or the Louvre in Paris, where the family’s name graces entire wings. The Sackler name also appears, most notably, in Smithsonian galleries, the American Museum of Natural History, and The Guggenheim.

But Esquire’s Christopher Glazek notes, what the family is not known for is building Purdue Pharma, the company that developed and marketed the ubiquitous painkiller, OxyContin. 

The original Sackler brothers who built Purdue Pharma after acquiring it in 1952 had backgrounds in health care and mental health research. Arthur Sackler, who purchased the company, was a pioneer in pharmaceutical marketing and one of the first inductees into the Medical Advertising Hall of Fame. 

Arthur had a real knack for marketing prescription drugs; he was a major part of the reason why the anti-anxiety drug Valium, made by Roche, became so popular in the 1960s. His nephew Richard also developed his own interest in advertising, which helped Purdue spread sales of OxyContin.

Arthur Sackler spent his earnings on building his art collection, to the point where he became “addicted” to hoarding valuable artifacts—“ritual bronzes and weapons, mirrors and ceramics, inscribed bones and archaic jades…too much to appreciate,” according to his second wife. He would use these objects as leverage later when he began making deals with institutions like the Met. By some reports, Arthur Sackler would finagle “hefty tax deductions” for himself through his “donations,” though his family denies this claim.

Purdue Pharma is the American branch of the Sackler family’s global pharmaceutical empire, which also includes Napp Pharmaceuticals in the UK and Mundipharma, which targets global markets.

OxyContin was first developed exclusively for cancer or other hospice care patients, because of the aversion at the time to opioid treatments. (The U.S. was contending with a heroin epidemic at the time.) The idea was to create a timed-release morphine pill for these patients to help them sleep through the night. The drug’s first iteration, “MS Contin,” was brought from the UK to the U.S. in the late 1980s.

In 1996, OxyContin hit the market. Purdue is not the only manufacturer of prescription painkillers, but as writer Glazek notes, the company was “nevertheless the first to achieve a dominant share of the market for long-acting opioids, accounting for more than half of prescriptions by 2001.” 

By promoting and marketing OxyContin—eventually breaking out of the cancer pain market and targeting general practitioners, dentists, nurses, and more—sales of the drug hit $1 billion by 2001. OxyContin is not the sole source of the Sacklers’ fame, Glazek notes, but the “greatest part of [the family’s] $14 billion fortune” came from sales of the drug.

As sales grew, so too did reports of widespread addiction. As scrutiny over the North American opioid crisis has grown, Purdue has come under fire for its misleading marketing of OxyContin, accused of downplaying its addictive potential and ruthlessly pushing sales of the drug.

Glazek quotes a Purdue sales rep, Shelby Sherman, who worked at the company from 1974 to 1998. “It was sell, sell, sell,” Sherman says. “We were directed to lie. Why mince words about it? Greed took hold and overruled everything. They saw that potential for billions of dollars and just went after it.” 

The company has since been accused of giving kickbacks to doctors and every part of the distribution chain, to promote its product. 

The U.S. federal government eventually caught up to Purdue in 2007, which for years had quieted “dozens of class action lawsuits” by settling for millions of dollars to avoid going to trial. The company pleaded guilty to felony charges and admitted that it lied to doctors about OxyContin’s abuse potential. The company paid hundreds of millions in fines as a result of the federal charges.

Now, at least 25 cities and states have sued Purdue for damages related to opioid addiction.

The Sacklers now have their eye on global markets, as OxyContin prescriptions fell 33% between 2012 and 2016. According to a December 2016 Los Angeles Times report, another company owned by the Sacklers, Mundipharma, is working tirelessly to reach global markets.

As a result of this report, a dozen congressional lawmakers sent a letter to the World Health Organization, warning of the Sacklers’ efforts to infiltrate other markets with addictive painkillers. 

“Purdue began the opioid crisis that has devastated American communities,” the letter reads. “Today, Mundipharma is using many of the same deceptive and reckless practices to sell OxyContin abroad.”

The company is purporting to target the global “silent epidemic” of untreated chronic pain—but that’s not how the LA Times sees it. 

The newspaper warned in its report: “A network of international companies owned by the [Sackler] family is moving rapidly into Latin America, Asia, the Middle East, Africa and other regions, and pushing for broad use of painkillers in places ill-prepared to deal with the ravages of opioid abuse and addiction.”

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Victoria is interested in anything that has to do with how mind-altering substances impact society. Find Victoria on LinkedIn or Tumblr