V&A finally cuts ties with controversial Sacklers over opioid crisis

V&A finally cuts ties with controversial Sacklers over opioid crisis


London’s V&A removes Sackler name from museum walls as it cuts ties with billionaire dynasty that sparked US opioid crisis

  • A spokesperson for the V&A said museum ‘will no longer carry the Sackler name’ 
  • Sacklers owned now bankrupt pharmaceutical company Purdue Pharma, which is widely deemed responsible for the US opiate crisis
  • Its salespeople targeted doctors directly to persuade them to prescribe their drug, Oxycontin, without telling them it was addictive 
  •  Joins National Gallery, Tate, National Portrait Gallery and British Museum, who all once received donations from the family but have since cut ties

The V&A has finally bowed to pressure from campaigners and cut ties with controversial US art philanthropists the Sackler family. 

The London museum revealed this week that it would no longer carry the name Sackler on the V&A’s Centre for Arts Education and in its Exhibition Road courtyard.

The Sacklers owned now bankrupt pharmaceutical company Purdue Pharma, which is widely deemed responsible for the US opiate crisis that spiralled in the nineties. Its salespeople targeted doctors directly to persuade them to prescribe their drug, OxyContin, without telling them it was addictive.

Campaign group Sackler P.A.I.N has long since called for the tourist attraction in South Kensington to officially distance itself from the family, who have donated in the past to the likes of the National Gallery, Tate, National Portrait Gallery, British Museum, all of which no longer accept funds from the Sacklers.

The family continues to donate to charitable causes, with UK public bodies benefiting from £14 million from the Sacklers in 2020.  

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A spokesperson for the V&A told The Observer this week that the South Kensington museum ‘will no longer carry the Sackler name’. The US family owned the now bankrupt pharmaceutical company Purdue Pharma, which is widely deemed responsible for the US opiate crisis

Purdue Pharma filed for bankruptcy in 2019 after being involved in thousands of lawsuits claiming the big pharma company pressured doctors to prescribe OxyContin, a highly addictive narcotic that has contributed to the US opioid crisis, resulting in more than 500,000 deaths in America over the last two decades

Oxycontin flooded the US healthcare system in the 90s – prescribed by doctors misled that it wasn’t addictive in the treatment of moderate pain – and is largely thought to have sparked America’s opioid crisis

A V&A spokesperson told The Observer newspaper: ‘The V&A and the family of the late Dr Mortimer D Sackler have mutually agreed that the V&A’s Centre for Arts Education and its Exhibition Road courtyard will no longer carry the Sackler name.’

The statement continued: ‘Dame Theresa Sackler was a trustee of the V&A between 2011 and 2019, and we are immensely grateful for her service to the V&A over the years. We have no current plans to rename the spaces.’

Signage in the museum that carried the Sackler name have disappeared from its walls and long-time Sackler P.A.I.N campaigner and artist Nan Goldin praised the decision, saying: ‘The V&A has been the last bastion of holdouts in terms of those supporting the Sacklers. It’s a big victory for people who go to museums and do not want to see the name of the family who helped ignite the overdose crisis.’

Hard-hitting US drama Dopesick, released in 2021, sees Michael Keaton play Dr Samuel Finnix, a small-town GP who’s persuaded to prescribe Oxycontin, an addictive painkiller to patients by salesman Billy Cutler (William Poulter)

A prescription-only opioid-based painkiller, Oxycontin was first introduced into the market in 1996. 

Promoted as less addictive than other prescription painkillers, it soon became the most popular opioid drug sold in the US. 

The drug’s makers, Purdue Pharma – owned by the Sackler family, incentivised its sales force with huge bonuses for selling OxyContin to doctors, the majority of whom had rarely treated chronic pain. 

Medical sales reps were instructed to downplay the risk of addiction and the potential for abuse.  

The drug had been licensed by the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) for moderate pain (previously opioids were only licensed for severe pain), something that was core to the sales patter of Purdue Pharma’s staff.

Family members of people who’ve lost their lives to an Oxycontin addiction pictured in 2019 protesting at the Arthur M. Sackler Museum at Harvard University, Boston

They were also told to recommend OxyContin for a wide range of pain problems, including headaches, back pain and arthritis instead of reaching for drugs like paracetamol or anti-inflammatories such as ibuprofen. 

Despite the growth of its use as a drug of abuse – often associated with crime – Purdue Pharma continued to push the drug as a valuable first-line painkiller.  

In 2019, a court case brought by Massachusetts Attorney General Maura Healey against Purdue Pharma accused its executives and members of the billionaire Sackler family of deceiving patients and doctors about the risks of opioids and pushing prescribers to keep patients on the drug longer. 

In 2019, anti-opioid protestors targeted art galleries across the world that had benefited from donations from the Sackler family, including the Louvre in Paris and the Guggenheim in New York

In December 2021, a federal judge rejected Purdue Pharma’s offer for a $4.5billon settlement with thousands of plaintiffs, including individuals affected by the opioid crisis and local, state and Native governments, because of a clause which would have protected the Sackler family from litigation.

U.S. District Judge Colleen McMahon in New York said that the bankruptcy court that first agreed to the settlement, did not have the legal authority to release the family from liability.  

In a statement, Purdue claimed the ruling would make it harder for company and Sackler money to be used to fight the opioid crisis as the legal fight continues. 

Steve Miller, chairman of the Purdue board of directors said: ‘It will delay, and perhaps end, the ability of creditors, communities, and individuals to receive billions in value to abate the opioid crisis. 

‘These funds are needed now more than ever as overdose rates hit record-highs, and we are confident that we can successfully appeal this decision and deliver desperately needed funds to the communities and individuals suffering in the midst of this crisis.’ 

Eight members of the billionaire Sackler family are currently being sued by multiple American cities, counties and states. 


How many Oxycontin-related lawsuits has Purdue Pharma faced throughout the years? 

Purdue has been involved in measures against prescription drug abuse, particularly of Oxycontin, an often-abused prescription drug which is among the drugs most commonly cited in connection with overdose deaths.

2001: Connecticut Attorney General Richard Blumenthal issued a statement urging Purdue to take action regarding abuse of Oxycontin. He noted that while Purdue seemed sincere, there was little action being taken beyond ‘cosmetic and symbolic steps.’ 

After Purdue announced plans to reformulate the drug, Blumenthal noted that this would take time and that ‘Purdue Pharma has a moral, if not legal obligation to take effective steps and address addiction and abuse even as it works to reformulate the drug.’

2004: The West Virginia Attorney General sued Purdue for reimbursement of ‘excessive prescription costs’ paid by the state. Saying that patients were taking more of the drug than they had been prescribed because the effects of the drug wore off hours before the 12-hour schedule, the state charged Purdue with deceptive marketing. 

In his ruling the trial judge wrote: ‘Plaintiff’s evidence shows Purdue could have tested the safety and efficacy of OxyContin at eight hours, and could have amended their label, but did not.’ 

The case never went to trial; Purdue agreed to settle by paying the state US$10 million(equivalent to approximately $14M in 2020) for programs to discourage drug abuse, with all the evidence remaining under seal and confidential.

May 2007: The company pleaded guilty to misleading the public about OxyContin’s risk of addiction and agreed to pay $600 million (equivalent to approximately $749M in 2020) in one of the largest pharmaceutical settlements in U.S. history. Company President, Michael Friedman, top lawyer Howard R. Udell, and former chief medical officer Paul D. Goldenheim pleaded guilty as individuals to misbranding charges, a criminal violation and agreed to pay a total of $34.5 million in fines.

Eight members of the billionaire Sackler family are being sued by multiple American cities, counties and states, including Richard, Jonathan, Mortimer, Kathe, David, Beverly and Theresa Pictured (left to right): Dr. Thomas Lynch, Richard Sackler, Jonathan Sackler, and Dean Robert Alpern; Seated: Mr. and Mrs. Raymond and Beverly Sackler

Friedman, Udell, and Goldenheim agreed to pay $19 million, $8 million and $7.5 million, respectively. In addition, three top executives were charged with a felony and sentenced to 400 hours of community service in drug treatment programs.

On October 4, 2007: Kentucky officials sued Purdue because of widespread OxyContin abuse in Appalachia. A lawsuit filed by Kentucky then-Attorney General Greg Stumbo and Pike County officials demanded millions in compensation. Eight years later, on December 23, 2015 Kentucky settled with Purdue for $24 million.

In January 2017: The city of Everett, Washington sued Purdue based on increased costs for the city from the use of OxyContin as well as Purdue not intervening when they noted odd patterns of sale of their product, per agreement in the 2007 suit noted above. 

The allegations say Purdue did not follow legal agreements to track suspicious excess ordering or potential black market usage. The suit says false clinics created by unscrupulous doctors used homeless individuals as ‘patients’ to purchase OxyContin, then sold it to the citizens of Everett.

The black market sale of the drug out of legal pharmacies based in Los Angeles with distributions points in Everett is also said to be part of the experience of the city according to the suit. 

No intervention was made by Purdue to contact the DEA for years despite knowing of the practice and the overuse and sale of their product. The suit asks for a yet to be determined reimbursement related to costs of policing, housing, health care, rehabilitation, criminal justice system, park and recreations department, as well as to the loss of life or compromised quality of life of the citizens of Everett directly.

In May 2018: Six states—Florida, Nevada, North Carolina, North Dakota, Tennessee and Texas—filed lawsuits charging deceptive marketing practices, adding to 16 previously filed lawsuits by other U.S. states and Puerto Rico.

By January 2019, 36 states were suing Purdue Pharma. Massachusetts attorney general Maura Healey complains in her lawsuit that eight members of the Sackler family are ‘personally responsible’ for the deception. She alleges they ‘micromanaged’ a ‘deceptive sales campaign.’

In March 2019: Purdue Pharma reached a $270m settlement in a lawsuit[53] filed by Oklahoma, which claimed its opioids contributed to the deaths of thousands of people.

In August 2019: Purdue Pharma and the Sackler family were in negotiations to settle the claims for a payment of $10-$12 billion. The settlement would include a Chapter 11 filing by Purdue Pharma, which would be restructured as public beneficiary trust and the Sackler Family would give up any ownership in the company. Addiction treatment drugs currently developed by the company would be given to the public cost-free. 

All profits of Purdue would henceforth go to the plaintiffs in the case. On top of that, the Sackler family would contribute $3billion in cash. The family would also sell Mundipharma and contribute another $1.5billion from the sales proceeds to the settlement. 

However, the Sackler family would remain a billionaire family and would not be criminally charged for contributing to the opioid crisis.

On September 2019: The office of the New York Attorney General accused the Sackler family of hiding money by wiring at least $1 billion from company accounts to personal accounts overseas.

In October 2020: Purdue agreed to an $8 billion settlement that includes a $2 billion criminal forfeiture, a $3.54 billion criminal fine, and $2.8 billion in damages for its civil liability. 

It will plead guilty to three criminal charges, and it will become a public benefit company under a trust that is required to consider American public health. The Sacklers will not be permitted to be involved in the new company.

 Source: NPR, NBC News and WSJ



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