Dial the phone number for the man accused in numerous civil lawsuits of bearing more responsibility than any other individual for the prescription opioid epidemic that has claimed in excess of 200,000 lives, and you hear an assistant say:
“Doctor Sackler’s line.”
That being Dr. Richard Sackler, a physician whose family founded Purdue Pharma, the company that makes and hyper-aggressively markets OxyContin.
“Eight people in a single family made the choices that caused much of the opioid epidemic,” alleges a lawsuit filed this week in Manhattan federal court by communities from 26 states, along with eight Native American tribes.
Among those alleged to be the pharmaceutical equivalent of the Hated Eight, Richard Sackler appears to be the one most responsible for the disgraceful sales strategies described in a host of lawsuits, including civil complaints filed by the attorney general in Tennessee, Massachusetts, and the company’s home state of Connecticut.
He and Purdue have emphatically denied any wrongdoing, even though the company and three non-Sacklers who officially ran it pleaded guilty in 2007 to felony charges of fraudulently marketing OxyContin as being safer and less addictive than competing opioids.
If the allegations against Richard Sackler are in fact true, there is a question eminently worth asking: How on earth is this man still licensed to practice medicine?
In recent years, there has been a growing clamor to remove the Sackler name from various museums and educational facilities to which the family have made significant donations.
But removal of the Sackler name should begin with Connecticut physician/surgeon license No. 16993. The license was issued to Richard S. Sackler on 11/22/1974, after he graduated from New York University Medical School, pledging to Do No Harm.
Records show Richard Sackler was certified for family medicine. His focus from the start was the Sackler family business, which had been founded by his father, Raymond Sackler, and his uncle, Mortimer Sackler.
The father and uncle were also physicians, to be specific psychiatrists from Brooklyn who actually practiced for a while at Creedmoor Psychiatric Center in Queens. They then went into the pharmaceutical business and prospered selling Senokot laxative and Betadine antiseptic, the brown stuff routinely splashed on wounds and burns in emergency rooms.
In 1995, Purdue set out to score bigger than big with a new opioid called OxyContin. Company records cited in several of the present lawsuits quote Richard Sackler’s remarks at the launch party:
“The launch of OxyContin tablets will be followed by a blizzard of prescriptions that will bury the competition. The prescription blizzard will be so deep, dense, and white.”
Purdue is alleged in the lawsuits to have falsely told physicians that its new product was not as strong or as addictive as other opioids such as morphine. Richard Sackler reported in a 1996 email to a Purdue executive that the approach was going even better than he hoped.
“Clearly this strategy has outperformed our expectations, market research and fondest dreams,” he wrote.
He said in a subsequent email, “You won’t believe how committed I am to make OxyContin a huge success. It is almost that I dedicated my life to it. After the initial launch phase, I will have to catch up with my private life again.”
As alleged in the present lawsuits, the Sacklers perpetrated a whole host of falsehoods in the effort to peddle billions of dollars in pills. Doctors were also told that the risk of becoming addicted to OxyContin was negligible even with considerable doses over extended periods.
Doctors were even told that symptoms of addiction were not really that at all, but rather indications that the person had not been taking enough OxyContin. Purdue actually called this “pseudoaddiction.”
“Purdue instructed patients and prescribers that signs of addiction are actually indications of untreated pain, such that the appropriate response is to prescribe even more opioids,” this week’s lawsuit says.
When reports reached Purdue that a growing number of people were becoming addicted, Richard Sackler declared in an email, “We have to hammer on abusers in every way possible. They are the culprits and the problem. They are reckless criminals.”
Richard Sackler had stepped down as president and then chairman of Purdue when Purdue itself was charged with being a reckless criminal.
The firm was hit with felony charges for fraudulently understating the hazards OxyContin. The three non-Sacklers officially in charge pleaded guilty, but received not a minute behind bars. The company paid $634.5 million in fines. It also awarded more than $8 million to two of the three executives who had pleaded guilty.
“The Sacklers spent millions to keep the loyalty of people who knew the truth,” the Massachusetts attorney general's suit charges.
None of the Sacklers were held responsible, even as they pocketed billions in profits. The present lawsuits say Purdue continued much as before, with Richard Sackler allegedly micromanaging the company’s apparently deliberate recklessness. Purdue continued to target the elderly, telling physicians that taking some Oxy at night would keep geriatrics in bed and less likely to suffer a fall. Never mind that doped up seniors had been proven to be more likely to suffer falls.
Purdue also targeted veterans, teaming a writer up with a Navy corpsman who had lost a leg in Iraq to produce a book called Exit Wounds in 2009. The subtitle reads, A Survival Guide to Pain Management for Returning Veterans and Their Families.
“Long experience with opioids shows that people who are not predisposed to addiction are unlikely to become addicted to opioid pain medications,” the book says. “When used correctly, opioid pain medication increases a person’s level of functioning.”
In 2011, Purdue also began offering free webinars on “United States Veterans and Pain Care.”
“Purdue’s campaign to target veterans had a terrible cost,” the Massachusetts attorney general's suit says. “Compared to non-veterans, Massachusetts veterans are three times more likely to die from opioid overdose.”
The Massachusetts suit alleges that Purdue also “pushed Massachusetts doctors to prescribe more and more opioids, because high-prescribing doctors earned Purdue millions of dollars”
The suit continues, “To make sure doctors prescribed more of its drugs, Purdue tracked Massachusetts doctors’ prescriptions, visited their offices hundreds of times, bought them meals, and asked doctors to ‘commit’ to put specific patients on Purdue opioids. When doctors did what Purdue wanted, Purdue rewarded them with consulting deals worth tens of thousands of dollars and kept promoting drugs to them even when the doctors wrote illegal prescriptions, and lost their medical licenses, and their patients died.”
The suit further notes, “From 2008 until he lost his medical license in 2012, Purdue’s top prescriber in Massachusetts was Dr. Walter Jacobs, in North Andover. He practiced alone. He often worked only three days a week. Nevertheless, in five years, he prescribed more than 347,000 pills of Purdue opioids.
The suit adds, “Purdue knew Jacobs’s practice inside and out. Purdue sales resentatives visited him more than a hundred times. Purdue pushed Jacobs to keep up a high rate of prescriptions—to keep writing ‘new scripts’—and to get patients on higher doses... He prescribed tens of thousands of Purdue’s intermediate strength pills. He also prescribed more than 200,000 of Purdue’s highest strength 80 mg OxyContin—the pill that is the most dangerous and the most profitable.”
The suit says Purdue pushed Jacobs to distribute discount savings cards “knowing that ‘savings cards’ kept patients on opioids longer.”
“Purdue urged Jacobs to distribute savings cards,” the suit reports. “Purdue asked him to have his patients travel to New Hampshire to fill prescriptions because the cards were illegal in Massachusetts until 2012.”
The suit goes on, “Purdue was not paying Jacobs to do what was best for patients. When he lost his medical license, Jacobs admitted that he ‘continuously prescribed narcotics’ to patients, ‘ignored’ the risk of substance abuse, and kept prescribing narcotics even after his patients overdosed.”
The suit concludes, “Purdue paid Jacobs to get more people on addictive opioids, at higher doses, for longer periods of time. By the time Jacobs lost his license, he had prescribed enough opioids to earn Purdue more than $3 million.”
The Sacklers are said to have have raked in to in excess of $4 billion since the 2007 and the guilty plea where they themselves admitted no guilt. And unlike Jacobs, Richard Sackler has retained his medical license.
“It’s criminal,” said John Lally of Connecticut, whose 29-year-old son, Timothy Lally, fatally overdosed on opioids in 2016.
Lally is a longtime mental health nurse practitioner, but he was unable to rescue his son from the depression that would set in despite the joy Timothy found in music and sports.
“Somebody offered him some OxyContin,” the father told the Daily Beast. “At the moment it made him feel better. Next thing you know, you can't go without it.”
The son went to rehab twice, but relapsed.
“He just couldn't kick it,” the mother said.
The unthinkable became the inevitable.
“I never thought it would happen to my own family,” the father said. “I’m an example that it can happen to anyone in any family.”
He formed a non-profit organization in his son’s memory called Today I Matter, or TIM, “to promote the emotional, mental and physical health of the community.” The organization helped stage a protest on Overdose Awareness Day at Purdue's headquarters in Stamford, Connecticut.
Among the dozens of other parents who participated was Elizabeth Fitzgerald, who lost two sons to overdoses. Kyle was given painkillers in the hospital after he was stabbed while protecting a friend. Matt got started when somebody in high school gave him an OxyContin pill.
“In the mind of a teenager, it’s just a pill,” the mother told The Daily Beast.
Both ended up addicted and struggled to shake it off. Kyle died in 2013 at the age of 25.
“Mom, I didn't just lose my bother. I lost my best friend,” Matthew told her. “Mom, I just thought this was something we’d grown out of and we’d laugh about in our sixties.”
Matthew died in 2017 at the age of 32. He is buried beside Kyle.
“You either kick it or you die,” the mother told The Daily Beast. ”It destroys families.”
In August, she was outside the headquarters of the Sackler family’s company with a photo of her sons. John Lally had a photo of Timothy. Lally has called Purdue “an American cartel.”
“Making money, knowing people were dying and not caring,” he has said.
And, inside the building, telephone calls to the man who appear to bear more responsibility than any other individual for the opioid epidemic are answered:
“Dr Sackler’s line.”