The Sackler family name, once synonymous with philanthropy benefiting elite institutions, is now more closely tied to pain, addiction and death. Eight family members who own Purdue Pharma are accused of being fully aware that its opioid drugs were helping cause a nationwide addiction and overdose epidemic while turning a blind eye to it.
Instead of looking for ways to alert doctors to the dangers of overprescribing, the company looked for ways to reward doctors who had demonstrably high prescription rates, according to a Massachusetts lawsuit. They hired the consulting firm McKinsey to look for additional ways to maximize prescription rates even as addiction rates skyrocketed.
The allegations, laid out in a 247-page legal memorandum by the Massachusetts attorney general, say that the Sacklers lobbied for opioid-friendly laws, dispatched teams of sales reps and offered big donations to medical facilities and universities. All this in pursuit of higher Purdue profits. The allegations suggest a grotesque willingness to destroy countless American lives in the name of greed.
It's time for institutions that gladly accepted Sackler donations to seriously consider removing the family's name from their walls. These include four iconic New York institutions: the American Museum of Natural History's Sackler Educational Laboratory, Dia Art Foundation's Sackler Institute, the Guggenheim Museum's Sackler Center for Arts Education and the Metropolitan Museum of Art's Sackler Wing.
The Massachusetts lawsuit alleges Sackler family members are "personally responsible" for deceptively selling OxyContin by using their own emails and company documents. Defense lawyers call the complaint a baseless "vilification" of the Sacklers.
If the lawsuit prevails, institutions must think about the millions of lives ruined by their benefactor. Does the vanity of seeing a family name glorified at the Guggenheim and the Met outweigh that scale of suffering attached to the Sackler name?
Purdue Pharma's current owners have an important distinction from the Arthur M. Sackler Foundation and Elizabeth Sackler, Arthur's daughter. When other campaigns have targeted institutions they have funded, their lawyers have responded with this clarification: "Arthur M. Sackler passed away in 1987, eight years before Oxycontin existed. His brothers, Mortimer and Raymond, purchased his one-third option in Purdue Frederick from his estate a few months after his death. None of his descendants — most notably, his daughter, Elizabeth — have had any involvement with, nor ownership of, Purdue Pharma or benefited from the sale of OxyContin in any way."
It's understandable that Elizabeth Sackler wants to distance her father's legacy from the horror inflicted by relatives who took over his company. From 1999 to 2016, more than 200,000 people died in the U.S. from overdoses related to prescription opioids.
Donations from family dynasties have been critical to arts, education and culture in America, though they often come with political baggage attached. But no institution can justify memorializing the Sackler family's legacy of societal destruction and greed.
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