For decades, most people didn’t give any thought to the name gracing prominent art galleries around the world: the Smithsonian’s Arthur M. Sackler Gallery in Washington, DC, the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s Sackler Wing in New York City, the National Gallery’s Sackler Room in London, and many more. Recently, however, the name has come under scrutiny. The Sackler family, it turns out, owns Purdue Pharma, and Purdue Pharma created OxyContin, which by most accounts was a primary catalyst for the current opioid epidemic.
As that epidemic continues to rage, state and local governments are turning to the courtroom to try to hold accountable the companies that contributed to the crisis. The defendants in the recent spate of lawsuits include the drug distributors, who turned a blind eye to supply opioids to pharmacies that were obviously – by sheer volume – selling the drugs illegally. And they include the pharmaceutical companies that make and market the drugs, including Johnson & Johnson and Teva. There are now more than 1,600 cases pending across the country; last fall, more than 600 individual federal lawsuits against a dozen drug makers and distributors were consolidated into one massive case. And that’s just the tip of the iceberg.
One of the biggest targets of these actions is Purdue. After it launched OxyContin in 1996, Purdue aggressively – and, it is argued, deceptively – marketed the drug to physicians. It claimed that OxyContin was less addictive than other painkillers and encouraged its use for common chronic pain. In 2007, Purdue paid more than $600 million in fines for its “misconduct” in how it marketed OxyContin. But the settlement didn’t change Purdue’s behavior. Last month, Purdue settled with the State of Oklahoma for $250 million; members of the Sackler family agreed to pay an additional $75 million of their personal funds. The money will be used for addiction treatment and research. Purdue is also prohibited from promoting its opioids in Oklahoma until 2026. Meanwhile, Purdue and individual members of the Sackler family remain defendants in the other lawsuits. Purdue and the Sackler family deny the allegations against them.
The Sacklers were incredibly wealthy – and made many of their philanthropic donations – long before the development of OxyContin. But plenty of their current wealth derived from the sale of a drug that has devastated thousands of lives. (One lawsuit claims that Sackler family members received more than $4 billion from Purdue between 2008 and 2016.) As a result, the mere association with the Sackler name is becoming toxic. In March, several prominent art museums said “no thanks” to any more Sackler money, and shortly thereafter, the Sacklers announced that they were suspending further charitable donations. Now some people are asking whether the Sackler name should continue to be featured so prominently on our cultural institutions.
In the months and years ahead, responsibility for the opioid crisis will be litigated not just in the courts, but in art galleries as well.