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The billionaire family behind OxyContin is finally having its moment of reckoning​

More than 500 cities, counties, and Native American tribes just slapped the Sackler family with another lawsuit.
More than 500 cities, counties, and Native American tribes just slapped the Sackler family with another lawsuit.

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More than 500 cities, counties, and Native American tribes across the country filed a class action lawsuit Monday that argues the billionaire family behind Purdue Pharma “initiated and perpetuated” an entire generation of opioid users for their own financial gain by marketing their drug, OxyContin, as safe to prescribe.

The nearly 200-page lawsuit — which devotes 11 pages to listing the places suing — names eight people in the Sackler family, including Richard Sackler, the scion who’s come under increased scrutiny for the marketing methods he pushed while president of Purdue. The family made billions off OxyContin, first introduced to the market in 1996.


Thousands of lawsuits against Purdue Pharma already allege the company played an outsized role in stoking the opioid epidemic. But the Sacklers — rarely named in the early lawsuits — have increasingly become a target for ire. With their communities steeped in an overdose crisis that’s cost the nation hundreds of thousands of lives over the past several years, cities and other players want someone to pay.

As the Sacklers become more and more tied to litigation about the opioid crisis, their non-drug-related pursuits have come under fire too.

In the lawsuit filed Monday, the 500 plaintiffs argue the Sacklers should’ve done more to stop their company from continuing its allegedly deceptive marketing and that Purdue had an “obligation to report suspicious prescribing ran head-on into the Sackler Defendants’ marketing strategy.”

“Purdue and the Sackler defendants manipulated and misrepresented medical science to serve their own agenda at great human cost,” the lawsuit alleges.

Massachusetts’ attorney general has also sued the Sacklers and argues the family led doctors to believe, incorrectly, that OxyContin was a weaker, safer drug than morphine. And New York City added the Sackler family to its existing lawsuit against Purdue Pharma in January. On Thursday, Democratic Rep. Elijah Cummings, chairman of the House Oversight Committee, along with Republican Rep. Mark DeSaulnier, requested documents from Purdue relating to the Sacklers’ level of involvement in ratcheting up sales.


The allegations in the lawsuits largely relate to the Sacklers’ involvement in Purdue’s marketing of the high-dose drug. Purdue settled with the Justice Department in 2007 over allegations relating to its marketing practices and agreed to pay more than $600 million in fines. As part of the settlement, three of the company’s executives pleaded guilty to misleading the public about OxyContin’s potential for addiction, which physicians sold as a less-addictive alternative to other painkillers.

Significant portions of the lawsuit relating to Purdue’s alleged misconduct post-2007, however, are redacted.

The name of the family, made up of prominent philanthropists, also graces museum halls, university buildings, and hospital wings. Now, some recipients of Sackler money have considered cutting ties. The Tate institution, of the Tate Britain and Tate Modern galleries, said this week that it’s not accepting any further donations from the Sacklers. And London’s National Portrait Gallery, under pressure from activists, dropped talks with the Sackler Trust for a $1.3 million donation.

Last month, during a busy Saturday night at New York City’s Guggenheim museum, protesters dropped thousands of fake prescriptions into the institution’s famous atrium to protest its Sackler ties.

Purdue and the Sacklers have repeatedly denied the claims against them, and Purdue has specifically argued that it’s being blamed for an addiction problem too complex to pin to one actor. Drug overdoses have risen exponentially in the U.S. for decades, even as prescriptions for opioids like OxyContin have dropped off. Pain patients, meanwhile, have also argued their drugs are being unfairly demonized.

Synthetic opioids like fentanyl are now considered to be the primary culprit behind overdose deaths, but those deaths often involve more than one substance.

Cover image: In this April 2, 2018, file photo, a pharmacist poses for photos holding a bottle of OxyContin at Daniel's Pharmacy in San Francisco. (AP Photo/Jeff Chiu, File)