The Sackler Courtyard is the latest addition to an impressive portfolio. There’s the Sackler Wing at New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art, which houses the majestic Temple of Dendur, a sandstone shrine from ancient Egypt; additional Sackler wings at the Louvre and the Royal Academy; stand-alone Sackler museums at Harvard and Peking Universities; and named Sackler galleries at the Smithsonian, the Serpentine, and Oxford’s Ashmolean. The Guggenheim in New York has a Sackler Center, and the American Museum of Natural History has a Sackler Educational Lab. Members of the family, legendary in museum circles for their pursuit of naming rights, have also underwritten projects of a more modest caliber—a Sackler Staircase at Berlin’s Jewish Museum; a Sackler Escalator at the Tate Modern; a Sackler Crossing in Kew Gardens. A popular species of pink rose is named after a Sackler. So is an asteroid.
The Sacklers’ philanthropy differs from that of civic populists like Andrew Carnegie, who built hundreds of libraries in small towns, and Bill Gates, whose foundation ministers to global masses. Instead, the family has donated its fortune to blue-chip brands, braiding the family name into the patronage network of the world’s most prestigious, well-endowed institutions. The Sackler name is everywhere, evoking automatic reverence; the Sacklers themselves, however, are rarely seen.
To the extent that the Sacklers have cultivated a reputation, it’s for being earnest healers, judicious stewards of scientific progress, and connoisseurs of old and beautiful things. Few are aware that during the crucial period of OxyContin’s development and promotion, Sackler family members actively led Purdue’s day-to-day affairs, filling the majority of its board slots and supplying top executives. By any assessment, the family’s leaders have pulled off three of the great marketing triumphs of the modern era: The first is selling OxyContin; the second is promoting the Sackler name; and the third is ensuring that, as far as the public is aware, the first and the second have nothing to do with one another.
If you head north on I-95 through Stamford, Connecticut, you will spot, on the left, a giant misshapen glass cube. Along the building’s top edge, white lettering spells out ONE STAMFORD FORUM. No markings visible from the highway indicate the presence of the building’s owner and chief occupant, Purdue Pharma.
Concurrent with his psychiatric work, Arthur Sackler made his name in pharmaceutical advertising, which at the time consisted almost exclusively of pitches from so-called “detail men” who sold drugs to doctors door-to-door. Arthur intuited that print ads in medical journals could have a revolutionary effect on pharmaceutical sales, especially given the excitement surrounding the “miracle drugs” of the 1950s—steroids, antibiotics, antihistamines, and psychotropics. In 1952, the same year that he and his brothers acquired Purdue, Arthur became the first adman to convince The Journal of the American Medical Association, one of the profession’s most august publications, to include a color advertorial brochure.
According to his ads, psychic tension, the forebear of today’s “stress,” was the secret culprit behind a host of somatic conditions, including heartburn, gastrointestinal issues, insomnia, and restless-leg syndrome. The campaign was such a success that for a time Valium became America’s most widely prescribed medication—the first to reach more than $100 million in sales. Arthur, whose compensation depended on the volume of pills sold, was richly rewarded, and he later became one of the first inductees into the Medical Advertising Hall of Fame.
As Arthur’s fortune grew, he turned his acquisitive instincts to the art market, quickly amassing the world’s largest private collection of ancient Chinese artifacts. According to a memoir by Marietta Lutze, his second wife, collecting, exhibiting, owning, and donating art fed Arthur’s “driving necessity for prestige and recognition.” Rewarding at first, collecting soon became a mania that took over his life. “Boxes of artifacts of tremendous value piled up in numerous storage locations,” she wrote, “there was too much to open, too much to appreciate; some objects known only by a packing list.” Under an avalanche of “ritual bronzes and weapons, mirrors and ceramics, inscribed bones and archaic jades,” their lives were “often in chaos.” “Addiction is a curse,” Lutze noted, “be it drugs, women, or collecting.”
In 1974, when Arthur and his brothers made a large gift to the Met—$3.5 million, to erect the Temple of Dendur—they stipulated that all museum signage, catalog entries, and bulletins referring to objects in the newly opened Sackler Wing had to include the names of all three brothers, each followed by “M.D.” (One museum official quipped, “All that was missing was a note of their office hours.”)
Arthur’s younger brothers, Mortimer and Raymond, looked so much alike that when they worked together at Creedmoor, they fooled the staff by pretending to be one another. Their physical similarities did not extend to their personalities, however. Tage Honore, Purdue’s vice-president of discovery of research from 2000 to 2005, described them as “like day and night.” Mortimer, said Honore, was “extroverted—a ‘world man,’ I would call it.” He acquired a reputation as a big-spending, transatlantic playboy, living most of the year in opulent homes in England, Switzerland, and France. (In 1974, he renounced his U. S. citizenship to become a citizen of Austria, which infuriated his patriotic older brother.) Like Arthur, Mortimer became a major museum donor and married three wives over the course of his life.
Raymond led Purdue Frederick as its top executive for several decades, while Mortimer led Napp Pharmaceuticals, the family’s drug company in the UK. (In practice, a family spokesperson said, “the brothers worked closely together leading both companies.”) Arthur, the adman, had no official role in the family’s pharmaceutical operations. According to Barry Meier’s Pain Killer, a prescient account of the rise of OxyContin published in 2003, Raymond and Mortimer bought Arthur’s share in Purdue from his estate for $22.4 million after he died in 1987. In an email exchange, Arthur’s daughter Elizabeth Sackler, a historian of feminist art who sits on the board of the Brooklyn Museum and supports a variety of progressive causes, emphatically distanced her branch of the family from her cousins’ businesses. “Neither I, nor my siblings, nor my children have ever had ownership in or any benefit whatsoever from Purdue Pharma or OxyContin,” she wrote, while also praising “the breadth of my father’s brilliance and important works.” Jillian, Arthur’s widow, said her husband had died too soon: “His enemies have gotten the last word.”
The Sacklers have been millionaires for decades, but their real money—the painkiller money—is of comparatively recent vintage. The vehicle of that fortune was OxyContin, but its engine, the driving power that made them so many billions, was not so much the drug itself as it was Arthur’s original marketing insight, rehabbed for the era of chronic-pain management. That simple but profitable idea was to take a substance with addictive properties—in Arthur’s case, a benzo; in Raymond and Mortimer’s case, an opioid—and market it as a salve for a vast range of indications.
In the years before it swooped into the pain-management business, Purdue had been a small industry player, specializing in over-the-counter remedies like ear-wax remover and laxatives. Its most successful product, acquired in 1966, was Betadine, a powerful antiseptic purchased in industrial quantities by the U. S. government to prevent infection among wounded soldiers in Vietnam. The turning point, according to company lore, came in 1972, when a London doctor working for Cicely Saunders, the Florence Nightingale of the modern hospice movement, approached Napp with the idea of creating a timed-release morphine pill. A long-acting morphine pill, the doctor reasoned, would allow dying cancer patients to sleep through the night without an IV. At the time, treatment with opioids was stigmatized in the United States, owing in part to a heroin epidemic fueled by returning Vietnam veterans. “Opiophobia,” as it came to be called, prevented skittish doctors from treating most patients, including nearly all infants, with strong pain medication of any kind. In hospice care, though, addiction was not a concern: It didn’t matter whether terminal patients became hooked in their final days. Over the course of the seventies, building on a slow-release technology the company had already developed for an asthma medication, Napp created what came to be known as the “Contin” system. In 1981, Napp introduced a timed-release morphine pill in the UK; six years later, Purdue brought the same drug to market in the U. S. as MS Contin.
MS Contin quickly became the gold standard for pain relief in cancer care. At the same time, a number of clinicians associated with the burgeoning chronic-pain movement started advocating the use of powerful opioids for noncancer conditions like back pain and neuropathic pain, afflictions that at their worst could be debilitating. In 1986, two doctors from Memorial Sloan Kettering hospital in New York published a fateful article in a medical journal that purported to show, based on a study of thirty-eight patients, that long-term opioid treatment was safe and effective so long as patients had no history of drug abuse. Soon enough, opioid advocates dredged up a letter to the editor published in The New England Journal of Medicine in 1980 that suggested, based on a highly unrepresentative cohort, that the risk of addiction from long-term opioid use was less than 1 percent. Though ultimately disavowed by its author, the letter ended up getting cited in medical journals more than six hundred times.
Perhaps the most private member of a generally secretive family, Richard appears nowhere on Purdue’s website. From public records and conversations with former employees, though, a rough portrait emerges of a testy eccentric with ardent, relentless ambitions. Born in 1945, he holds degrees from Columbia University and NYU Medical School. According to a bio on the website of the Koch Institute for Integrative Cancer Research at MIT, where Richard serves on the advisory board, he started working at Purdue as his father’s assistant at age twenty-six before eventually leading the firm’s R&D division and, separately, its sales and marketing division. In 1999, while Mortimer and Raymond remained Purdue’s co-CEOs, Richard joined them at the top of the company as president, a position he relinquished in 2003 to become cochairman of the board. The few publicly available pictures of him are generic and sphinxlike—a white guy with a receding hairline. He is one of the few Sacklers to consistently smile for the camera. In a photo on what appears to be his Facebook profile, Richard is wearing a tan suit and a pink tie, his right hand casually scrunched into his pocket, projecting a jaunty charm. Divorced in 2013, he lists his relationship status on the profile as “It’s complicated.”
Former employees describe Richard as a man with an unnerving intelligence, alternately detached and pouncing. In meetings, his face was often glued to his laptop. “This was pre-smartphone days,” said Riddle. “He’d be typing away and you would think he wasn’t even listening, and then all of the sudden his head would pop up and he’d be asking a very pointed question.” He was notorious for peppering subordinates with unexpected, rapid-fire queries, sometimes in the middle of the night. “Richard had the mind of someone who’s going two hundred miles an hour,” said Lacouture. “He could be a little bit disconnected in the way he would communicate. Whether it was on the weekend or a holiday or a Christmas party, you could always expect the unexpected.”
Richard also had an appetite for micromanagement. “I remember one time he mailed out a rambling sales bulletin,” said Shelby Sherman, a Purdue sales rep from 1974 to 1998. “And right in the middle, he put in, ‘If you’re reading this, then you must call my secretary at this number and give her this secret password.’ He wanted to check and see if the reps were reading this shit. We called it ‘Playin’ Passwords.’ ” According to Sherman, Richard started taking a more prominent role in the company during the early 1980s. “The shift was abrupt,” he said. “Raymond was just so nice and down-to-earth and calm and gentle.” When Richard came, “things got a lot harder. Richard really wanted Purdue to be big—I mean really big.”
To effectively capitalize on the chronic-pain movement, Purdue knew it needed to move beyond MS Contin. “Morphine had a stigma,” said Riddle. “People hear the word and say, ‘Wait a minute, I’m not dying or anything.’ ” Aside from its terminal aura, MS Contin had a further handicap: Its patent was set to expire in the late nineties. In a 1990 memo addressed to Richard and other executives, Purdue’s VP of clinical research, Robert Kaiko, suggested that the company work on a pill containing oxycodone, a chemical similar to morphine that was also derived from the opium poppy. When it came to branding, oxycodone had a key advantage: Although it was 50 percent stronger than morphine, many doctors believed—wrongly—that it was substantially less powerful. They were deceived about its potency in part because oxycodone was widely known as one of the active ingredients in Percocet, a relatively weak opioid- acetaminophen combination that doctors often prescribed for painful injuries. “It really didn’t have the same connotation that morphine did in people’s minds,” said Riddle.
A common malapropism led to further advantage for Purdue. “Some people would call it oxy-codeine” instead of oxycodone, recalled Lacouture. “Codeine is very weak.” When Purdue eventually pleaded guilty to felony charges in 2007 for criminally “misbranding” OxyContin, it acknowledged exploiting doctors’ misconceptions about oxycodone’s strength. In court documents, the company said it was “well aware of the incorrect view held by many physicians that oxycodone was weaker than morphine” and “did not want to do anything ‘to make physicians think that oxycodone was stronger or equal to morphine’ or to ‘take any steps . . . that would affect the unique position that OxyContin’ ” held among physicians.
Purdue did not merely neglect to clear up confusion about the strength of OxyContin. As the company later admitted, it misleadingly promoted OxyContin as less addictive than older opioids on the market. In this deception, Purdue had a big assist from the FDA, which allowed the company to include an astonishing labeling claim in OxyContin’s package insert: “Delayed absorption, as provided by OxyContin tablets, is believed to reduce the abuse liability of a drug.”
The theory was that addicts would shy away from timed-released drugs, preferring an immediate rush. In practice, OxyContin, which crammed a huge amount of pure narcotic into a single pill, became a lusted-after target for addicts, who quickly discovered that the timed-release mechanism in OxyContin was easy to circumvent—you could simply crush a pill and snort it to get most of the narcotic payload in a single inhalation. This wasn’t exactly news to the manufacturer: OxyContin’s own packaging warned that consuming broken pills would thwart the timed-release system and subject patients to a potentially fatal overdose. MS Contin had contended with similar vulnerabilities, and as a result commanded a hefty premium on the street. But the “reduced abuse liability” claim that added wings to the sales of OxyContin had not been approved for MS Contin. It was removed from OxyContin in 2001 and would never be approved again for any other opioid.
The year after OxyContin’s release, Curtis Wright, the FDA examiner who approved the pharmaceutical’s original application, quit. After a stint at another pharmaceutical company, he began working for Purdue. In an interview with Esquire, Wright defended his work at the FDA and at Purdue. “At the time, it was believed that extended-release formulations were intrinsically less abusable,” he insisted. “It came as a rather big shock to everybody—the government and Purdue—that people found ways to grind up, chew up, snort, dissolve, and inject the pills.” Preventing abuse, he said, had to be balanced against providing relief to chronic-pain sufferers. “In the mid-nineties,” he recalled, “the very best pain specialists told the medical community they were not prescribing opioids enough. That was not something generated by Purdue—that was not a secret plan, that was not a plot, that was not a clever marketing ploy. Chronic pain is horrible. In the right circumstances, opioid therapy is nothing short of miraculous; you give people their lives back.” In Wright’s account, the Sacklers were not just great employers, they were great people. “No company in the history of pharmaceuticals,” he said, “has worked harder to try to prevent abuse of their product than Purdue.”
Purdue did not invent the chronic-pain movement, but it used that movement to engineer a crucial shift. Wright is correct that in the nineties patients suffering from chronic pain often received inadequate treatment. But the call for clinical reforms also became a flexible alibi for overly aggressive prescribing practices. By the end of the decade, clinical proponents of opioid treatment, supported by millions in funding from Purdue and other pharmaceutical companies, had organized themselves into advocacy groups with names like the American Pain Society and the American Academy of Pain Medicine. (Purdue also launched its own group, called Partners Against Pain.) As the decade wore on, these organizations, which critics have characterized as front groups for the pharmaceutical industry, began pressuring health regulators to make pain “the fifth vital sign”—a number, measured on a subjective ten-point scale, to be asked and recorded at every doctor’s visit. As an internal strategy document put it, Purdue’s ambition was to “attach an emotional aspect to noncancer pain” so that doctors would feel pressure to “treat it more seriously and aggressively.” The company rebranded pain relief as a sacred right: a universal narcotic entitlement available not only to the terminally ill but to every American.
OxyContin’s sales started out small in 1996, in part because Purdue first focused on the cancer market to gain formulary acceptance from HMOs and state Medicaid programs. Over the next several years, though, the company doubled its sales force to six hundred—equal to the total number of DEA diversion agents employed to combat the sale of prescription drugs on the black market—and began targeting general practitioners, dentists, OB/GYNs, physician assistants, nurses, and residents. By 2001, annual OxyContin sales had surged past $1 billion. Sales reps were encouraged to downplay addiction risks. “It was sell, sell, sell,” recalled Sherman. “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.” Flush with cash, Purdue pioneered a high-cost promotion strategy, effectively providing kickbacks—which were legal under American law—to each part of the distribution chain. Wholesalers got rebates in exchange for keeping OxyContin off prior authorization lists. Pharmacists got refunds on their initial orders. Patients got coupons for thirty- day starter supplies. Academics got grants. Medical journals got millions in advertising. Senators and members of Congress on key committees got donations from Purdue and from members of the Sackler family.
It was doctors, though, who received the most attention. “We used to fly doctors to these ‘seminars,’ ” said Sherman, which were, in practice, “just golf trips to Pebble Beach. It was graft.” Though offering perks and freebies to doctors was hardly uncommon in the industry, it was unprecedented in the marketing of a Schedule II narcotic. For some physicians, the junkets to sunny locales weren’t enough to persuade them to prescribe. To entice the holdouts—a group the company referred to internally as “problem doctors”—the reps would dangle the lure of Purdue’s lucrative speakers’ bureau. “Everybody was automatically approved,” said Sherman. “We would set up these little dinners, and they’d make their little fifteen-minute talk, and they’d get $500.”
Between 1996 and 2001, the number of OxyContin prescriptions in the United States surged from about three hundred thousand to nearly six million, and reports of abuse started to bubble up in places like West Virginia, Florida, and Maine. (Research would later show a direct correlation between prescription volume in an area and rates of abuse and overdose.) Hundreds of doctors were eventually arrested for running pill mills. According to an investigation in the Los Angeles Times, even though Purdue kept an internal list of doctors it suspected of criminal diversion, it didn’t volunteer this information to law enforcement until years later.
As criticism of OxyContin mounted through the aughts, Purdue responded with symbolic concessions while retaining its volume-driven business model. To prevent addicts from forging prescriptions, the company gave doctors tamper-resistant prescription pads; to mollify pharmacists worried about robberies, Purdue offered to replace, free of charge, any stolen drugs; to gather data on drug abuse and diversion, the company launched a national monitoring program called RADARS.
Critics were not impressed. In a letter to Richard Sackler in July 2001, Richard Blumenthal, then Connecticut’s attorney general and now a U. S. senator, called the company’s efforts “cosmetic.” As Blumenthal had deduced, the root problem of the prescription-opioid epidemic was the high volume of prescriptions written for powerful opioids. “It is time for Purdue Pharma to change its practices,” Blumenthal warned Richard, “not just its public-relations strategy.”
It wasn’t just that doctors were writing huge numbers of prescriptions; it was also that the prescriptions were often for extraordinarily high doses. A single dose of Percocet contains between 2.5 and 10mg of oxycodone. OxyContin came in 10-, 20-, 30-, 40-, and 80mg formulations and, for a time, even 160mg. Purdue’s greatest competitive advantage in dominating the pain market, it had determined early on, was that OxyContin lasted twelve hours, enough to sleep through the night. But for many patients, the drug lasted only six or eight hours, creating a cycle of crash and euphoria that one academic called “a perfect recipe for addiction.” When confronted with complaints about “breakthrough pain”—meaning that the pills weren’t working as long as advertised—Purdue’s sales reps were given strict instructions to tell doctors to strengthen the dose rather than increase dosing frequency.