Who Are the Sacklers? How America's Opioid Crisis Is Linked to Relics from Ancient Egypt

OxyContin, a commonly abused opioid painkiller, is produced by Purdue Pharma. Darren McCollester/Getty Images

President Trump on October 26 declared opioid addiction a public health emergency, making a range of resources available to tackle a crisis that kills tens of thousands of Americans each year. But reining in painkiller use will involve going up against big pharma, including companies like Purdue Pharma, which makes OxyContin.

New features in The New Yorker and Esquire pull back the curtain on Purdue Pharma and the family behind it. The Sackler family, which owns Purdue, is much more famous for what they've done with their money than for how they've earned it. As these stories detail, the Sacklers are famous in the art world for their support of museums. Their philanthropy has contributed to the ancient Egyptian Temple of Dendur at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, a museum visited by about 6 million people annually; the Sackler Gallery of Asian art in Washington, D.C.; and many other art destinations.

The museums they're eager to talk about; the painkillers, not so much. "No member of the family has ever really spoken expansively at all about OxyContin or the opioid crisis, so we don't know what they think," Patrick Radden Keefe, the journalist behind the New Yorker story, told WNYC.

The original Sacklers were a trio of doctors born in Brooklyn. All three have since died, but their children have taken over steering the family's philanthropic legacy in the art world. According to Forbes, the Sacklers were worth $14 billion in 2015, making them one of the 20 wealthiest families in America, although there are schisms within the family.

The Sacklers are the exclusive owners of Purdue Pharma, which makes about $3 billion in revenue each year—mostly from OxyContin. But as the opioid crisis continues, public opinion is turning against the family, with some arguing that the company has lied about how addictive its products are and calling for some of the family's fortune to be turned to addiction treatment.

That lying-to-the-public piece touches on another aspect of the family's legacy: a deep interest in drug advertising. Arthur Sackler made some of the family's first wealth in the 1960s marketing Valium and other tranquilizers. The New Yorker highlights ads he designed promoting tranquilizers for college freshmen and even for people with no complaints about their mental health.

After Arthur died, his brothers, Mortimer and Raymond, found a way to slow the release of oxycodone over about 12 hours, which meant the company could market it as harder to abuse. But it wasn't. Abusing slow-release oxycodone just required more creativity: Crushing up the pills destroyed the carefully delayed release of the painkiller. In 2010, Purdue reformulated the drug so that it couldn't be crushed as easily, which may have simply redirected users to heroin.

But in many arenas, references to the Sackler family remain focused exclusively on their philanthropic legacy. "Most people don't know about [OxyContin]," Lynne Regan, the director of Yale University's Sackler Institute for Biological, Physical and Engineering Sciences, told Esquire. "I think people are mainly oblivious."