Lawsuits Lay Bare Sackler Family’s Role in Opioid Crisis

In 2014, Raymond Sackler, now deceased, sent three other family members a confidential memo about Purdue’s strategy for placing patients on high doses of opioids for extended periods of time. The memo noted that doctors had argued against the practice, but that Purdue had beaten back efforts to impose caps on doses, according to the Massachusetts complaint.

The next year, Jonathan Sackler, then a board member, sought information about how public health campaigns to curb opioid addiction would affect OxyContin sales. In 2017, he pushed to develop a new opioid, and asked the staff to present a plan at the next Purdue board meeting.

It was Arthur Sackler, a psychiatrist and pharmaceutical marketing guru who helped pioneer the infomercial, who started the family business dynasty. In 1952, he and his two younger brothers, Mortimer and Raymond (who were also psychiatrists and who have since died), bought a small company called Purdue Frederick. Their first products included laxatives and a prescription earwax remover, as recounted in the book “Pain Killer” by Barry Meier, a former New York Times reporter.

Jonathan SacklerCreditSylvain Gaboury/

The sprawling family today is hardly monolithic. Arthur’s branch has not been involved in Purdue for many years, and one of his children, Elizabeth A. Sackler, has called Purdue Pharma’s role in the opioid crisis “morally abhorrent.” But reporting published last year by ProPublica and The Atlantic suggested that Arthur’s side of the family may have reaped some financial benefit from Purdue after OxyContin hit the market.

The lawsuits brought by the attorneys general of New York and Massachusetts, Letitia James and Maura Healey, named eight Sackler family members: Kathe, Mortimer, Richard, Jonathan and Ilene Sackler Lefcourt — children of either Mortimer or Raymond Sackler — along with Theresa Sackler, the elder Mortimer’s widow; Beverly Sackler, Raymond’s widow; and David Sackler, a grandson of Raymond.

Purdue’s business was fundamentally changed after the F.D.A. approved OxyContin in 1995. The company marketed the drug as a long-acting painkiller that was less addictive than shorter-acting rivals like Percocet and Vicodin, a strategy aimed at reducing the stigma attached to opioids among doctors.

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