NEW YORK (JTA) — In the 1930s, Mortimer and Raymond Sackler both traveled to Scotland for medical school because, they said, American universities wouldn’t admit them as Jews.
Eighty years later, academic and cultural institutions the world over are deciding whether to reject the Sackler brothers’ children — not because of their religion but because of their actions.
Mortimer and Raymond Sackler are the late patriarchs of a family under fire now for its central role in the opioid addiction crisis, which has led to hundreds of thousands of American deaths. The brothers’ giant pharmaceutical company, Purdue Pharma, is the manufacturer of OxyContin, one of the leading opioids on the market.
Mortimer died in 2010 and Raymond in 2017. Now their widows, along with five of their children and one grandchild, are being sued by three states for allegedly committing a range of fraudulent and deceptive practices in the marketing of OxyContin. Purdue reached a $270 million settlement with the state of Oklahoma in March.
Before becoming notorious for painkillers, the Sacklers were noted for their philanthropy. So a range of museums and schools are grappling with what to do with the wings, schools and chairs named for them. A couple of Jewish institutions, including Tel Aviv University, face that dilemma as well.
(A third Sackler brother, Arthur, died in 1987, when his brothers bought out his shares — nine years before OxyContin was introduced in 1996. Arthur’s family, which has also given philanthropically, has distanced itself from OxyContin.)
The Sackler brothers were born to Jewish immigrants from Poland and Ukraine.
Arthur Sackler, the oldest, was born in 1913 to Jewish immigrant grocers in Brooklyn. Mortimer and Raymond were born, respectively, in 1916 and 1920. The brothers became psychiatrists: Arthur earned his degree at New York University, the others attended medical school in Scotland.
Arthur lived in Manhattan, Mortimer in London and Switzerland, and Raymond in Greenwich, Connecticut.
They turned a small pharmaceutical company into an empire.
In 1952, the brothers bought Purdue-Frederick, a small New York City drug company, which later became Purdue Pharma. At the time it produced laxatives.
But everything changed in 1996 when the company began to market OxyContin, a prescription painkiller. The drug was marketed as safer than alternatives because of its so-called controlled release, which gradually released the drug into the patient’s bloodstream rather than doing so all at once.
According to a 2017 feature on the family in the New Yorker, the Food and Drug Administration said the drug was less prone to addiction than alternatives because of the controlled release. That was despite Purdue declining to do any clinical studies on the drug’s addictiveness, according to the New Yorker.
OxyContin was prescribed broadly for a wide spectrum of pain, and has made the Sacklers America’s 19th richest family with a combined net worth of $13 billion, according to Forbes. As recently as last year, eight Sacklers sat on Purdue’s board.
But recently, as the human toll of the addiction crisis has become evident — in large part, investigators complain, because the dangers of addiction to OxyContin were downplayed or kept hidden — the Sackler name has become synonymous with controversy. Now the number of Sacklers on the board is zero.
Now they are being sued for aggressively and deceptively marketing an addictive drug.
Lawsuits in New York, Massachusetts and Connecticut charge that the Sacklers dispatched an army of marketers to portray OxyContin as a safe pain treatment despite knowing of its addictive potential.