This is the second article in the “American Cartel” series about the billionaire Sackler family, Purdue Pharma and the opioid epidemic. Read the first, third, fourth and fifth.
New Yorkers and tourists flocked to a major modern-art museum in October for a family-friendly, two-hour walk along the Hudson River, live music, poetry and lectures from the most fashionable of artists. Visitors were invited to create a metallic costume for a heavy metal video recording, and an art historian from New York University gave an hour-long talk about sculptor John Chamberlain. Afterward, the participants broke for a microbrew beer tasting. No local attendees had to pay a dime.
It was the fourth “community free day” The Sackler Institute at the Dia Art Foundation had held this year. For each, the calendar noted The Sackler Institute’s role in the days’ events. None of the Dia webpages touting Sackler Institute events mentioned that the programs, and the institute behind them, were funded by the opioid epidemic’s biggest profiteers and what critics call “blood money.”
The Sacklers — the family that gave the Dia institute its name — amassed a $13 billion fortune through their drug company Purdue Pharma, that is widely blamed for playing a major role in initiating the opioid epidemic through their aggressive and deceptive marketing of OxyContin.
The narcotic painkiller produced $35 billion in sales revenue between 1995 and 2015, according to Forbes.
Nearly 200,000 Americans have died from overdosing on prescription opioids since 2000. All opioids — including heroin and fentanyl, whose users are typically first addicted to prescription painkillers — could kill nearly 500,000 more over the next decade, according to STAT.
Dia, which was co-founded by an oil heiress, received $20 million from the Sacklers between 2014 and 2015, and one family member, Marissa, sits on the art foundation’s board. Dia did not return numerous requests for comment.
“The Sackler foundation’s generous gift provides a new platform for Dia’s critical programs,” Dia director Jessica Morgan said in November 2016 when the Sackler Institute was established. “We are grateful to Marissa Sackler and her family for their leadership and support. We are confident that the creation of the Sackler Institute will be a catalyst for expanding and deepening our rich network of ideas and knowledge, which is at the heart of Dia’s mission.”
Dia was one of 44 nonprofits that took at least $100,000 from the Sacklers between 2013 and 2015, a Daily Caller News Foundation investigation found. Together, the family gave the organizations nearly $81 million in donations.
“It’s blood money, it’s blood money,” Andrew Kolodny, Brandeis University’s co-director of Opioid Policy Research, told TheDCNF. “I would hope the institutions that are taking Sackler money would begin to think about it and treat it in the same way they would a donation from [Colombian drug lord] Pablo Escobar.”
Those nonprofits range from prestigious art galleries and exhibits to research institutions and professorships to education advocacy groups, and many of those have wings bearing the family name.
“Thousands of lives have been lost for Purdue to make that money, so I would like to see some of these institutions take the Sackler name off the wall,” Kolodny added.
The Sacklers have never publicly donated to addiction rehabilitation centers and contributed just a few thousands dollars to local groups that may help treat overdoses, a recent DCNF review found. Both Esquire and The New Yorker have highlighted the prestigious art galleries and other institutions that took on the family name after accepting Sackler donations.
President Donald Trump declared the opioid epidemic a public health emergency in October.
“Certainly, [Purdue’s] founders — Raymond, Mortimer and Arthur [Sackler] — are responsible for the irresponsible growing of the opioid market to proportions never seen before in the pharmaceutical marketing world,” Mike Moore, a lawyer leading a lawsuit against Purdue, told TheDCNF. “Their great financial success caused more deaths than most of the wars this country has ever fought.”
Moore was Mississippi’s Democratic attorney general for 16 years and gained prominence after winning a multi-state lawsuit against tobacco companies that resulted in a $246 billion settlement. He’s leading a coalition of state and local governments that are suing a number of pharmaceutical companies, including Purdue, for their role in the opioid epidemic.
“They, the family of those three [Sacklers], should all be ashamed of that legacy and be ready to make big contributions and redress in the form of treatment centers in every state to begin to slow the deaths and overdoses their actions have caused,” Moore told TheDCNF. “Their money is blood money and should be shunned by all respectable charities unless it’s spent to clean up the mess they caused.”
Most of the groups TheDCNF contacted were seemingly indifferent to their funding source, but six defended the Sacklers.
The New York Academy of Sciences, which hosts a nutrition institute named after the Sacklers, received more than $21 million — more than any other recipient. Spokeswoman Marie Gentile initially told TheDCNF the academy would respond to a request for comment, but it never did. She ignored a reporter’s email saying TheDCNF would characterize her silence after prior correspondence as indifference to the Sacklers’ revenue source.
Five other Sackler recipients stopped responding after telling TheDCNF they would provide comment, and they ignored similar emails.
The $20 million the Sacklers gave the Dia Art Foundation was the second biggest donation during the three-year period. It was among 17 recipients of the family’s money that did not respond to numerous emails and phone calls seeking comment.
The New York Presbyterian Hospital — where a brain and spine center is named after the Sacklers — was the third biggest recipient, taking in $18 million. A hospital spokeswoman declined to comment.
Another 14 groups also declined to comment.
Meanwhile, six organizations — all of which were colleges or other research institutes — defended the Sacklers.
“Members of the Sackler family have contributed to interdisciplinary research at Tufts University since the 1970s,” the school’s spokesman, Patrick Collins, told TheDCNF.
The private Massachusetts college, which has a biomedical graduate school named after the Sacklers, received more than $2 million from the family between 2013 and 2015.
“The funding has contributed to milestones in understanding the origins of breast cancer, the most common cancer in women,” Collins told TheDCNF. “Dr. [Raymond] Sackler’s personal legacy includes his lifelong dedication to funding interdisciplinary science that is advancing research into new treatments for human diseases.”
Collins did not respond to an email asking if the advancements in treating breast cancer were worth the lives lost to addiction and overdose that helped fund the research.
Similarly, National Academies of Sciences spokeswoman Molly Galvin defended the $1 million the Sacklers gave the institute during the same three-year period.
“[The Sackler] donations have allowed for us to hold important colloquia, lectures … on important topics in science, engineering and medicine,” Galvin told TheDCNF.
Several events bear the Sackler name, including the Raymond and Beverly Sackler U.S.-U.K. Scientific Forum, that was established to partner the two nations “on pressing topics of worldwide scientific concern,” according to the forum’s website. Galvin also provided links to opioid studies the academies had published, though she noted they were not funded with Sackler money.
Meanwhile, another Sackler-owned company, called Mundipharma, is pushing OxyContin to international markets, the Los Angeles Times previously reported. Mundipharma has downplayed the risks of opioids’ addictiveness and have marketed their drug through methods similar to those the Sacklers’ Purdue used in the late 1990s.
The Jackson Laboratory, Research!America, the University of Toledo Foundation and Yale University also defended the Sacklers’ donations. All 44 organizations’ responses and the dollar amounts they received from the Sackler family are included at the bottom of this article.
Many of the Sacklers’ beneficiaries are research institutions, however, others were art centers or nonprofits for various causes.
For example, the Brooklyn Museum, the Guggenheim Museums and the Metropolitan Museum of Art — all of which have wings bearing the Sackler name — were among the family’s beneficiaries.
The Brooklyn Museum houses the Elizabeth A. Sackler Center for Feminist Art. Elizabeth, Arthur’s daughter, has previously said her portion of the family has distanced themselves from the rest of the Sacklers and has not profited from OxyContin. Regardless, foundations bearing her uncles’ names have donated to the museum.
The Guggenheim’s Sackler Center for Arts Education “is a learning laboratory” that highlights “the visual, performing and literary arts,” its website said. The Met’s Sackler Wing is most famous for the Temple of Dendur, an ancient Egyptian temple built around 10 B.C.
None of those institutions provided comment.
Education advocacy groups were also frequent recipients of Sackler money, all of which came from the Bouncer Foundation donations. Raymond Sackler’s son, Jonathan, founded and fully funds the organization and runs it with his wife.
Families for Excellent Schools, for example, received nearly $1.4 million from the Bouncer Foundation, tax forms show. The education group’s lobbying arm paid nearly $425,000 to Massachusetts in September to resolve allegations it disguised the source of $15 million it contributed to a committee seeking to raise the state cap on charter schools.
Families for Excellent Schools declined to comment.
The Sackler money given to each of the 44 groups TheDCNF contacted was listed in tax forms for seven foundations the family established. Sacklers primarily, or, in some cases, entirely, ran each foundation.
The family also typically funds the foundations. In some instances, the tax forms didn’t disclose the organization’s funding source, but often listed only Sacklers as contributors without showing dollar amounts.
The Mortimer D. Sackler Foundation, for example, doesn’t list any revenue in 2015 but shows that it donated $1.8 million to various groups and had nearly $4.5 million in assets. Nearly every officer is a Sackler and eight family members are listed as contributors.
Some of the foundations show a portion of their revenue came from stock holdings, that sometimes include companies in vice industries, such as alcohol and tobacco.
The Raymond and Beverly Sackler Foundation, for example, held stock with Heineken and Philip Morris, a prominent cigarette and tobacco company. The foundation also donated to various organizations for health research, including Yale University, Tufts and the Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center.
A Sloan-Kettering spokeswoman told TheDCNF the Sacklers had given the group donations for more than 30 years but did not comment further.
Two doctors with Sloan-Kettering published an article 31 years ago showing opioid medications were safe as long as the patient didn’t have a history of drug abuse, Esquire recently reported. The New Yorker showed that a doctor with the cancer center advocated for using opioids to treat chronic pain in 1993.
The Sacklers’ fortune started ballooning three years later when Purdue, the family’s privately-owned drug company, began convincing doctors that opioids were a safe and effective treatment for chronic pain patients. Such painkillers were previously used primarily for cancer and terminal patients.
“All opioid prescriptions started to go up in 1996 when Purdue introduced OxyContin, because it was that year that they launched a multifaceted campaign focused on opioids as a class of drugs,” Kolodny, the Brandeis opioid policy director, told TheDCNF. “The reason we are experiencing a severe epidemic of opioid addiction in the U.S. is the medical community started to prescribe aggressively.”
Purdue’s campaign effectively reversed doctor’s fears of opioids’ addictiveness. By 2010, one out of every five doctors visits resulted in an opioid prescription, and OxyContin made up one-third of all sales revenue from painkillers, according to the LA Times.
“What [Purdue] did that caused our epidemic was to change the way doctors thought about opioids as a class of drugs,” Kolodny told TheDCNF. “We know for the vast majority of patients with chronic pain, long-term use of opioids is not safe or even effective, and yet that’s been their target market from the beginning.”
Purdue promoted prescribing “a highly addictive, dangerous drug as the compassionate thing to do,” he continued.
Purdue’s marketing campaign for the Sacklers’ OxyContin wasn’t just aggressive. It was also deceptive. The company and three top executives pleaded guilty in 2007 to charges Purdue employees intentionally downplayed OxyContin’s addictiveness from 1996 to 2001.
“They underwrote a campaign that misinformed the medical community about opioid risks, especially minimizing the risk of addiction, and exaggerating the benefits,” Kolodny told TheDCNF. “Everything they thought of was really brilliant in an evil way, and it led to a public health catastrophe.”
Moore, the lawyer leading the coalition suing Purdue, added: “From a positive perspective, I would hope the Sackler family would realize that their wonder drug did a lot of bad things across this country — whether some members of the extended family intended that or not — and then decide to do something positive to impact the opioid epidemic.”
Purdue declined to comment. None of the Sackler foundations could be reached. Some of the phone numbers listed on the foundations’ tax forms went to voicemail boxes that didn’t identify themselves as Sackler organizations. The rest of the organizations were answered by people who told TheDCNF they had the wrong number.