Last month, President Donald Trump declared the opioid epidemic a national public health emergency. Abuse of the popular narcotic OxyContin alone is estimated to cause 100,000 deaths each year, though OxyContin deaths are difficult to differentiate from total opioid-related deaths. The drug was manufactured by Purdue Pharma, a pharmaceutical company owned by members of the Sackler family that misrepresented the drug as far less dangerous than it was known to be.
The Sackler family, whose estimated $13 billion fortune is a product of the company’s success, has donated a wing at the Metropolitan Museum of Art and a library at the University of Oxford. At Yale, the Sacklers have endowed two professorships at the School of Medicine and funded the Raymond and Beverly Sackler Institute for Biological, Physical and Engineering Sciences, among other gifts.
“There’s no doubt that we have an opioid addiction crisis in this country,” said University President Peter Salovey. “It is also clear that generosity from the Sackler family has funded issues core to Yale’s mission.”
Salovey declined to comment further on the Sacklers’ donations before he confers with relevant deans and faculty who are experts on the issue and whose research and lectureships have been funded by the Sacklers, who are not Yale alumni, except for a granddaughter who graduated in the class of 2012.
The opioid crisis is the deadliest drug crisis in American history. Some estimates place the death rate at more than 90 American lives each day. Marketing practices in the 1990s are widely believed to have contributed to the crisis, when pharmaceutical companies falsely advertised narcotics as helpful painkillers that had little risk of causing addiction.
Just a few days before Trump declared the epidemic an emergency, a story in Esquire investigated the history and philanthropy of the Sackler family. And a week later, a piece in the New Yorker similarly highlighted the contributions of Purdue Pharma to the crisis. In 1995, the company released the drug OxyContin, whose only active ingredient is the heroin-like substance oxycodone. Purdue Pharma marketed the drug as a remedy for both short-term and longer-lasting, less acute pain, such as arthritis or back pain. After two decades, the drug has produced nearly $35 billion in revenue.
But by 2003, the Drug Enforcement Administration found that Purdue Pharma had used “excessive and inappropriate” marketing that “very much exacerbated” OxyContin abuse. In 2007, Purdue Pharma and three of its executives pled guilty to federal charges of misbranding the drugs, collectively paying more than $600 million in fines. However, Richard Sackler was not charged.
Prescriptions for OxyContin have dropped by almost 40 percent since 2010. But Mundipharma, a company associated with Purdue Pharma and owned by members of the Sackler family, has continued to push the drug in Asia, Latin America and the Middle East. A Los Angeles Times investigation found that Mundipharma had paid doctors to give presentations abroad on the benefits of the drug. In 2015, the company saw a $100 million increase in sales from China — a jump of 45 percent — compared to the previous year, although Mundipharma did not disclose the portion of its revenue that came from OxyContin sales alone. There, the company used cartoon videos that understated the likelihood of addiction in a campaign for opioid pain relievers. The video was later removed from the website.
By 2008, when Raymond and Beverly Sackler endowed Yale with funds for an Institute for Biological, Physical and Engineering Sciences, Purdue Pharma’s misrepresentation of the drug was commonly known — the company had already settled multiple suits.
“These are gifts that different family members made as individual family gifts. These were not gifts from the company — these were individual family gifts, so in that sense, these individuals have wealth that they gave to us, so it’s no more complicated than that when they made these gifts a number of years ago,” said Vice President for Development Joan O’Neill. “We have no reason that we wouldn’t have been excited by the generosity that they provided to Yale and that they’ve provided to institutions around the world.”
In 2009, Richard and Jonathan Sackler endowed the Richard Sackler and Jonathan Sackler Professorship, to be held by the Yale Cancer Center director, with a $3 million gift. Mark Lemmon, the co-director of the Yale Cancer Biology Institute at Yale’s West Campus, currently holds the David A. Sackler Professorship of Pharmacology. According to Dean of the School of Medicine Robert Alpern, the Sacklers have given many gifts over the years to research and lectureship at Yale.
As of July 2014, Richard S. Sackler, former co-chairman and president of Purdue Pharma, was a member of the School of Medicine dean’s council and the Yale Cancer Center director’s advisory board. That year, Alpern called Sackler a “steadfast friend of the medical school.”
In March 2014, Sackler and his children established the Richard Sackler Family Endowment in Medicine, funded by a gift of stock donated by Sackler in 2009, to support three professorships. Raymond and Beverly Sackler have given to Yale to support archaeological excavation work and the establishment of the Raymond and Beverly Sackler Visiting Professor/Lecturer at the School of Medicine.
Asked whether Yale considered the source of the Sackler family’s wealth a factor in deciding whether to accept their donations and why the University ultimately accepted them, Alpern responded that the Sackler family had been “incredibly generous” to the University as well as other organizations. He added that members of the family have always been professional and never asked for anything in return.
Indeed, the Sackler family’s philanthropy spreads across continents. Facilities at Harvard, Tufts, Cambridge and Oxford bear the family’s name. The Sackler Wing at the Louvre Museum honors the family, and members of the family also endowed the Sackler Center for Arts Education at New York City’s Guggenheim Museum. The Raymond and Beverly Sackler Fund for the arts and sciences, one of the family’s charitable organizations, has supported a Yale study on macular degeneration.
“As a physician, I can tell you that opioid painkillers, which have been made by a number of pharmaceutical companies, have been very helpful for patients with pain,” Alpern said. “While it is now clear that these drugs have been abused and there is certainly an addiction problem in our country, responsibility for it cannot be attributed to a single cause.”
According to University Vice President for Communications Eileen O’Connor, once a fund or program is named, the University is contractually and ethically bound to the terms of a gift agreement. Renaming or altering the use of the fund or direction of the program require donor consent. If the donor does not agree, relevant University management analyzes the circumstances and, if necessary, recommends to the trustees that the gift be returned or appeals to a court to alter the name, modify the purpose or determine the appropriate alternative institution.
Purdue Pharma is based in Stamford, Connecticut.
Hailey Fuchs | firstname.lastname@example.org
Clarification, Nov. 15: A previous version of this article has been updated to include the fact that deaths due to Oxycontin are difficult to differentiate from total opioid-related deaths. Also, Esquire reported on the Sackler family two weeks before the New Yorker piece.