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Sackler family member tells magazine that Purdue Pharma didn’t cause opioid crisis

OxyContin pills.
OxyContin pills. (Toby Talbot/Associated Press/File)

David Sackler, the grandson of the founder of Purdue Pharma, asserted that the company “didn’t cause the crisis” of opioid addiction and defended his family against “vitriolic hyperbole” and “endless castigation” in an interview with Vanity Fair magazine published online Wednesday.

Sackler, who runs a family investment office and served on Purdue’s board of directors from 2012 to August 2018, is the first member of the family to publicly address accusations that Purdue, maker of OxyContin, bears responsibility for the opioid crisis because it aggressively and deceptively marketed a drug it knew was addictive.

Sackler says in the article that the company acted based on the prevailing scientific views of the time, and then took steps to remedy the problem when the science changed. He also notes that Purdue was “not the only company that marketed opioids.”

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The article’s author, Vanity Fair contributing editor Bethany McLean, describes their conversation as emotional, with Sackler sometimes “almost on the brink of tears” and other times struggling to control his anger.

“I have three young kids,” Sackler said in the interview. “My 4-year-old came home from nursery school and asked, ‘Why are my friends telling me that our family’s work is killing people?’ ”

Purdue Pharma faces suits from 48 states and more than 500 cities, counties, and tribal governments, accusing of it deceptive practices. Massachusetts Attorney General Maura Healey, announcing the first suit to name the Sacklers, said last year: “Their strategy was simple: The more drugs they sold, the more money they made — and the more people died.”

On Wednesday, the Wall Street Journal published a letter from Healey and Governor Charlie Baker rebutting an opinion piece last month that opposed the litigation.

“Purdue knew its opioids were addictive and its sales tactics were insidious,” Baker and Healey wrote. “Because of the AG’s lawsuit, the public can see how Purdue targeted communities; how the Sacklers blamed patients for getting addicted; and how eight people in the Sackler family made choices that caused much of the epidemic.”

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Meanwhile, many museums and other cultural institutions that have benefited from Sackler largesse — including the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City — have pledged not to take any more money from the family. But Harvard University declined to remove the name of Arthur M. Sackler from an art museum.

When it was introduced in 1995, according to Vanity Fair, OxyContin was thought to be less prone to abuse because of its extended-release formula, a notion endorsed by the Food and Drug Administration. It turned out, instead, that timed-release tablets provided an especially high dose of the drug.

It was also widely believed that opioids used medically rarely lead to addiction. David Sackler asserts that a push to more aggressively treat pain started years before OxyContin came on the market. “To argue that OxyContin started this,” he says in the article, “is not in keeping with history.”

McLean writes that Sackler repeatedly returns to the argument “that Purdue was not alone in believing that opioids like OxyContin were safe and effective enough to justify the risks.”

Sackler says his family has “so much empathy” for the thousands whose lives have been devastated by opioid addiction. “We feel absolutely terrible. Facts will show we didn’t cause the crisis, but we want to help,” he says.

Sackler emphasizes the steps the company took to respond: suspending the highest dose of OxyContin in 2001, formulating a program to pinpoint trouble spots, barring salespeople from calling on doctors known to run “pill mills,” and, in 2010, introducing an abuse-deterrent version of OxyContin.

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In 2007, Purdue agreed to pay $600 million to settle federal criminal and civil charges that Purdue illegally marketed OxyContin. Three Purdue executives also agreed to pay $34.5 million in penalties.

“None of the facts support the notion of these craven people just blithely ignoring the risks,” he says. “The company was trying to do the right thing under incredible stress.”

The Vanity Fair article intersperses Sackler’s comments with factual counter-punches and quotes from others who challenge some of Sackler’s assertions.

But in the end, McLean observes, “Listening to Sackler, I have no doubt that he fully believes the narrative he has assembled from the facts he has chosen to see. . . . As he sees it, his family’s company should be applauded for its efforts to address the opioid epidemic, not castigated for helping to create it.”


Felice J. Freyer can be reached at felice.freyer@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @felicejfreyer.