Empire of Pain: The secret history of the Sackler dynasty
By Patrick Radden Keefe, Picador/Doubleday, 2022, £10-99
Reviewed by Niall Mulholland
Visitors to museums and educational establishments such as the V&A Museum in London and Oxford University will be acquainted with the name of Sackler. This is the billionaire family from the United States which for decades has funded many aspects of these institutions and other world-renowned galleries and universities like the Louvre, Yale, and Harvard. Less well-known until recent years of revelations is that the Sacklers’ great wealth comes from the suffering of many people, particularly the poor.
An estimated half-a-million Americans have died from opioid-related overdoses since 1999, and millions more have become addicted. The Sackler family, through their company Purdue Pharma, made a painkiller drug in the 1990s called OxyContin, which is twice as powerful as morphine. They sold it as a slow-release drug and claimed that it was less addictive than other opiates. Scandalously, the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) approved OxyContin without testing the company’s claims. This created the conditions for an opioid epidemic in the United States and elsewhere. Not only was the drug addictive for many users, addicts soon discovered that by crushing the OxyContin pills they could ingest them much faster and get an immediate high.
All of this is brilliantly described in Patrick Radden Keefe’s book, Empire of Pain: The secret history of the Sackler family. Keefe traces the history of the Sackler dynasty, beginning with Arthur Sackler, the eldest of three boys born to a Ukrainian Jewish grocer in Brooklyn in 1913. Arthur funded himself through college and medical school, partly by working in advertising, and with his two younger brothers, Mortimer and Raymond, established or bought a number of businesses, including one which would change its name to Perdue Pharma.
Arthur used his advertising experience to aggressively market his pharmaceutical products, including Valium, with often misleading and false information. Valium sold widely in the 1960s and 1970s, and made the Sacklers rich. Arthur liked to work behind the scenes concerning his company but he was a keen collector of Asian art and a high-profile philanthropist. He drove hard to get the Sackler name on the walls of art galleries, universities and museums throughout the world. This granted the family name a veneer of respectability that belied the sordid origins of its enormous wealth.
Richard Sackler, the son of Raymond, became de-facto head of the family business after Arthur’s death in 1987. Once the company had devised OxyContin, it followed Arthur’s policy and mounted an aggressive and false publicity campaign, employing an army of sales people to lobby hard and entice with material inducements medical practitioners to sell OxyContin. The plan was a great success; it is estimated that since OxyContin went on sale the Sackler family has profited by $14 billion, which was often put into offshore shell companies and bank accounts.
Keefe describes the heroic efforts of journalist Barry Meir from the New York Times to expose the Sacklers’ role in the opioid epidemic. However, with their huge wealth and influence, the Sacklers were able to lobby the paper which subsequently took Meir off the subject.
But as the death toll continued to grow from opioids, public pressure forced the US government to finally take action. This was half-hearted, to say the least. A US attorney who raised alarm bells about OxyContin went on to become a consultant for Perdue. Yet after many years of litigation and action by attorney generals in some US states, which were particularly hit hard by the opiate epidemic, the Sackler family filed the Perdue Pharma company for bankruptcy. This allowed them to avoid any criminal charges or to accept any liability for the opioid crisis. It also took place as the patent for OxyContin was reaching its end. The Sacklers successfully gorged as much profit as possible from the drug and then discarded Perdue Pharma when it became too much of a liability.
Keefe has drawn on thousands of court documents, internal company emails, and hundreds of interviews he conducted to write a devastating portrait of the greed of the Sackler family and their unwillingness to take any responsibility or show any remorse for what OxyContin led to. When addicts could not get OxyContin and a new version of the pill proved harder to break up, they went on to heroin. In this way, OxyContin acted as a boost for the Mexican drug cartels.
Richard Sackler, who was president of Perdue Pharma from 1999 to 2003, along with the rest of the family, attempted to obscure the family’s involvement in the opiate disaster. Big law firms were ruthlessly deployed to threaten litigation against any perceived threat to Perdue’s reputation. If necessary, others took the blame; three Purdue Pharma executives pleaded guilty to a misdemeanour count of misbranding in a 2006 settlement with the Justice Department. They were later given large financial pay-outs by Purdue.
This superbly written book is an engrossing account of the immoral Sackler dynasty, which has a striking resemblance to the fictional Roy family from the TV hit show Succession – with a similar ensemble of ruthless and alternative-living-type family members, all of whom happily live off the company profits. Intentionally or not, Empire of Pain, is also a searing indictment of the system of capitalism itself, at its most corrupt and sordid.