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Nan Goldin, The Sackler Courtyard, The Victoria and Albert Museum, London, 2017.

Members of the Sackler Family Settle Purdue Pharma Suit for $225 Million

The US Department of Justice yesterday announced that the members of the Sackler family associated with Purdue Pharma will pay $225 million in civil penalties to settle a federal suit that saw the Stamford, Connecticut–based drug maker charged with aggressively marketing OxyContin and providing kickbacks to doctors who prescribed the powerful opioid, while downplaying its addictive qualities, resulting in rampant overprescription and an accompanying surge of related addictions and deaths.

The money represents a fraction of the total $8.3 billion settlement, the largest ever involving a pharmaceutical company, and part of a deal in which Purdue agreed to plead guilty to three felonies: defrauding the US government; violating the US Food, Drug, and Cosmetic Act; and violating the federal anti-kickback statute between 2009 and 2017. The $8.3 billion fine is considered to be largely symbolic, as the drugmaker filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy in September 2019.

The members of the Sackler family affiliated with Purdue will give up their interest in the company as part of the settlement, with the drug maker being run as a “public benefit company” following its emergence from bankruptcy, according to the Justice Department’s statement. The settlement leaves room for future civil and criminal charges to be filed against Purdue executives and against family members involved with the company during the period in which the intensive marketing took place. It also notably allows those members of the Sackler family who enriched themselves via sales of OxyContin to retain their personal wealth, estimated to be at least $13 billion.

The settlement has already been widely denounced, with attorneys general from twenty-five states penning a letter ahead of the expected decision to US Attorney General William P. Barr stating that “[a] business that killed thousands of Americans should not be associated with the government.” (The CDC estimates that opioid abuse has resulted in the deaths of roughly 450,000 Americans since 1999.) The October 14 letter further notes that “the Sacklers’ proposal to cloak the OxyContin business in public ownership compromises the proper roles of the private sector and government. Thousands of Americans have died, and it is a top priority of every state to enforce the law against the perpetrators whose misconduct caused the opioid crisis.”

Artist Nan Goldin, who in 2017 founded the activist group P.A.I.N. (Prescription Addiction Intervention Now) after becoming addicted to OxyContin following an injury, earlier this week wrote an article for The Art Newspaper calling for associated family members to be held accountable, saying, “Just as tobacco executives answered to the nation under oath about their misconduct, so should the Sacklers.” Goldin’s efforts have to date led multiple prestigious art institutions across the world to reject Sackler family money and in some cases to strip the Sackler name from their galleries. Upon the settlement’s being made public, P.A.I.N. tweeted “This proves that there are two justice systems in America—one for billionaires and one for the rest of us. The Sacklers’ [sic] walking away from Purdue is a retirement, not a punishment.”

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