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The Sackler name graced some of the worlds top museums and universities. But now key family members are being sued over the US opioid crisis and their wealth and reputation are under threat

Eight members of the billionaire Sackler family who own Purdue Pharma, the maker of the controversial opioid prescription painkiller OxyContin, are being sued by multiple American cities, counties and states. Allegations in civil lawsuits include that eight people in a single family made the choices that caused much of the US opioid epidemic via a deadly, deceptive illegal scheme.

The family have long been lauded in philanthropy circles, and the Sackler name adorns top British and American museums, galleries and universities. But now their narcotics fortune, chiefly distributed via family foundations and trusts, is being shunned by a growing number of people, and despite strenuous denials of wrongdoing, their reputations and vast wealth are under threat.

They are responsible for addiction, overdose and death that damaged millions of lives, the Massachusetts attorney general, Maura Healey, has alleged in a ground-breaking lawsuit.

Another massive lawsuit filed on behalf of 600 US cities and counties across 28 states coast to coast, and eight Native American tribes, alleges: This nation is facing an unprecedented opioid addiction epidemic that was initiated and perpetuated by the Sackler defendants for their own financial gain.

It adds that their Connecticut-based pharmaceutical firm Purdue Pharma instructed patients and prescribers that signs of addiction are actually indications of untreated pain, such that the appropriate response is to prescribe even more opioids.

The federal government reported there were 70,237 drug overdose deaths in the US in 2017. The death rate increased almost threefold from 1999 to 2017, and 130 people were dying daily from opioid-related overdoses.

Who are the Sacklers under fire?

Sackler family tree

Big picture: what are they accused of?

According to various lawsuits, as owners and longtime directors of Purdue Pharma, the eight are accused of orchestrating and knowingly pushing deceptive practices at Purdue to boost sales of OxyContin while misleading prescribers and the public about the risks of addiction and death.

They reaped profits while allegedly helping create the worst drug crisis in American history, the Massachusetts state lawsuit says. It continues: The Sacklers had the power to decide how addictive narcotics were sold. They hired hundreds of workers to carry out their wishes, and fired those who didnt sell enough drugs. They got more patients on opioids, at higher doses, for longer, than ever before [and] paid themselves billions.

How much are they worth?

The Sacklers reveal little. Forbes values this branch of the family at about $13bn. They own exclusive homes in London, New York, Beverly Hills and the Hamptons, and luxury estates in Connecticut, Texas and England.

Whos suing them?

Purdue Pharma is being sued by nearly every US state. And by almost 2,000 counties and cities gathered into a historic multi-district litigation case in federal court in Cleveland, in which some of the complaints have been amended to include the family members alongside many corporate defendants, AKA big pharma.

The eight Sackler individuals are also being sued personally by Massachusetts, New York, New Jersey, Colorado and Connecticut. Iowa, Kansas, Maryland, West Virginia and Wisconsin are suing only Richard Sackler, and Utah is suing Richard and Kathe. The company and the family deny wrongdoing.

What are the Sacklers saying?

These baseless allegations place blame where it does not belong for a complex public health crisis, and we deny them, the Mortimer and Raymond Sackler families have said in a statement. And they feel deep and profound compassion for people struggling with addiction.

Theresa Sackler in 2013. Photograph: David M Benett/Getty Images

Meanwhile, they are fighting the cases in court while also being involved in settlement talks.

Key allegations

All eightare accused collectively in lawsuits of:

Directing Purdue Pharma aggressively to push deceptive OxyContin marketing materials to health care providers, aimed at getting more and more patients on Purdues drugs for longer and longer periods of time at high doses.

Funding the Massachusetts General Hospital Purdue Pharma Pain Program and an entire degree program at Tufts University in order, deceptively, to influence Massachusetts doctors to use its drugs.

Additional allegations in lawsuits

Against Richard, Jonathan, Kathe, Mortimer and Theresa Sackler:

Some pill sales representatives reported to the above directors of Purdue their concerns that certain core doctors were writing inappropriate prescriptions. But Purdue ordered the reps to keep promoting opioids to these doctors anyway. Dozens of their patients overdosed and died.

Against Richard, Jonathan, Kathe and Mortimer:

In 1999, Richard Sackler became the chief executive of Purdue and Jonathan, Kathe, and Mortimerwere vice-presidents when the company hired hundreds of sales representatives and taught them false claims to use to sell drugs.

Against Theresa alone:

In May 2017, Purdue staff passed on advice that a reformulation of OxyContin was not a cost-effective way to prevent opioid abuse. Theresa Sackler asked staff what they were doing to fight back to convince doctors and patients to keep using the drug.

She also served on the governance committee of Rhodes Pharma, a company owned by the Sacklers selling a generic version of OxyContin.

Against Richard alone:

At the launch party for OxyContin in 1996, Richard said the drugs debut will be followed by a blizzard of prescriptions that will bury the competition.

Amid increasing evidence of abuse of and addiction to the pills, Richard wrote in an email: We have to hammer on the abusers in every way possible. They are the culprits and the problem. They are reckless criminals.

In 2007 Richard applied for the patent and monopoly for a drug to treat opioid addiction, saying opioids are addictive, and referring to junkies.

Against Kathe alone:

As far back as the 1990s, Kathe Sackler knew that patients frequently suffer harm when high doses of an opioid are used for long periods of time.

In 2014 Purdue discussed Project Tango, a secret plan to sell opioid addiction treatment, for profit. Kathe and staff wrote down what Purdue had publicly denied: that addictive opioids and opioid addiction are naturally linked. They weighed becoming an end-to-end provider. Project Tango never went ahead.

Against Mortimer David Alfons Sackler alone:

When Purdue sales projections showed OxyContin sales plateauing, Mortimer demanded answers about why sales would not grow. He believed the market should grow, one lawsuit said.

When Purdue staff at one point warned the Sacklers that prescribing was falling short of expectations and the familys quarterly payout from sales could fall from $320m to $260m, Mortimer sharply objected and demanded answers from staff.

Where do the cases go from here?

The first trial in any of the cases where the Sacklers personally are being sued by US local or state government is likely to be in spring 2020 in a case involving New York state and most of the states cities and counties and led by Suffolk county.

A protest against the Sacklers outside the Louvre. Photograph: Stphane de Sakutin/AFP/Getty Images

The year 2019 emerged as a year of reckoning for the US opioid industry that had allegedly been gorging on profits: plaintiffs against the eight Sacklers multiplied; Purdue Pharma settled a case brought by Oklahoma, and the Sacklers personally contributed $75m despite not being defendants; another corporate defendant in that case, Johnson & Johnson, went to trial; Insys became the first opioid maker to declare bankruptcy after bosses were convicted in criminal court; long-secret documents in the pivotal case in Ohio revealed in July how the industry deluged an unprepared American public with dangerous pain pills.

Amid settlement talks, the Ohio case the biggest civil trial in US history will see the first of a series of trials begin in October.

Past criminal case

Purdue Pharma was prosecuted in federal court in 2007 and fined $600m for crimes involving misleading regulators, doctors and patients about the dangers of OxyContin. The Sacklers werent charged, but one lawsuit notes: The Sackler defendants voted to enter into a plea agreement that stated: Purdue is pleading guilty as described above because Purdue is in fact guilty.

Leading institutions given money by eight Sacklers or via their charitable organisations


US Metropolitan Museum*, Guggenheim Museum*, Dia Art Foundation; Metropolitan Opera.

UK Tate Group*, Serpentine Gallery*, Victoria & Albert Museum and others, including the Museum of London, Royal College of Art, Natural History Museum, Royal Ballet School, Royal Opera House, National Gallery of Scotland.

France Louvre**

Academic, health, other

US universities Yale, Columbia*, MIT, Tufts, NYU, University of Connecticut, University of Washington*. Also Memorial Sloan Kettering cancer center, Natural History Museum.

UK Oxford University, Glasgow University, University of London, Westminster Abbey, Royal Botanic Gardens at Kew, Natural History Museum.

*By July 2019, these bodies had publicly announced they were forgoing any future Sackler funding.

** First major institution to remove Sackler name.

Adrian Horton contributed research

Read more: https://www.theguardian.com/us-news/2019/jul/26/sacklers-opioids-purdue-pharma-oxycontin-opioids