The Sacklers Get Away With It for the Price of $4.5 Billion

A demonstrator holds a prescription-drug bottle with a mock label to protest Purdue Pharma. Photo: Jessica Hill/AP/Shutterstock

The Sackler family, whose pharmaceutical firm helped plunge the United States into the opioid crisis, will finally pay — sort of. On Wednesday night, 15 state attorneys general agreed to a plan to settle claims against Purdue Pharma, which has been blamed for hooking millions on OxyContin via illegal sales practices. States will drop their opposition to Purdue’s proposed reorganization in bankruptcy court in exchange for a $4.5 billion settlement to be paid by the company’s owners, who are descendants of the three Sackler brothers who founded Purdue and revolutionized pharmaceutical marketing for the worse. In addition, the settlement will pave the way for 33 million documents about Purdue’s sales practices to be released.

The Sacklers, who for decades successfully art-washed their fortune by donating to prestigious museums, will also be barred from seeking naming rights to any hospitals, schools, or art institutions until the full sum is paid. That’s assuming any such organization would have them. Tufts University, the Smithsonian, the Louvre, the Met, the Guggenheim, and more have chiseled the family’s name off the buildings they funded, ever since the story became known of how the Sacklers had developed plans to “turbocharge” sales of their pill despite knowing patients were abusing it.

The $4.5 billion sum is hefty, but the Sacklers can pay it: The House Committee on Oversight and Reform estimates the family’s net assets at around $11 billion. It also appears they will not face criminal charges. As the New York Times notes, the settlement does not stop states from pursuing individual criminal cases, though “such prosecutions would be challenging to mount.” And in Purdue’s guilty plea last year on felony charges of defrauding federal health agencies and breaking anti-kickback laws — in which the firm was fined another $8 billion — no individuals were charged.

According to the agreement reached this week, the Sacklers won’t even have to apologize for their role in the opioid crisis that killed nearly 500,000 Americans between 1999 and 2019. At a press conference announcing the settlement, attorneys general from New York, Massachusetts, and Minnesota noted they were unable to secure a public apology or an admission of culpability. Instead, the family made off with its remaining $6.5 billion or so and gave a boilerplate statement: “This resolution to the mediation is an important step toward providing substantial resources for people and communities in need. The Sackler family hopes these funds will help achieve that goal.”

The Sacklers Get Away With It for the Price of $4.5 Billion